The best TV shows are the ones based on amazing original concepts, right? Well, you might be surprised…a number of well-known shows may not have sprung fully formed from the minds of their creators – or at least, those creators might not be the ones who got the credit!
At least, that’s what the plaintiffs in these fourteen suits would have you believe – each one attempted to sue a hit show for stealing their ideas. Some settled out of court, some are ongoing, and some were thrown out, but each show has faced legal action for, ahem, borrowing an idea or two.
Here are 14 Hit TV Shows That Got Sued For Being Ripoffs.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of the genius investigator and his trusted friend have entertained for generations, as well as spawned multiple adaptations for stage and screens (both big and small). Currently, there are two TV series based on the books, Elementary and Sherlock. Both have moved the action to the present day and given the titular character a drug problem, with the major differences being the setting (New York vs London) and Watson’s gender.
With two such similar series on the air, it was no surprise that the BBC raised their eyebrows when CBS announced their plans for Elementary. The announcement came soon after Sherlock first aired, and after CBS had already approached the BBC about creating a US-based remake of the show. The network didn’t end up taking legal action, but made it very clear that they would protect their show, insinuating that legal action would be initiated if CBS didn’t do enough to distinguish the two series.
13 The Big Bang Theory
Geek-culture sitcom The Big Bang Theory has not only been on the receiving end of one lawsuit, but was almost the plaintiff in another. Following the tried-and-true formula of ‘young people live across the hall from each other,’ the sitcom’s hook is that its characters are (mostly) nerdy types – scientists who work together – along with a pretty-but-dumb blonde who wants to be an actress.
One lawsuit (filed last year) deals with Sheldon Cooper’s (Jim Parsons) favorite childhood song – Soft Kitty – which has been sung several times in the course of the show. The song is a variant of the 1930s poem/song “Warm Kitty,” written by teacher Edith Newlin. Although CBS allegedly got the rights to use the song from a music company, the Newlin heirs claim that they own the rights – and they weren’t contacted.
The second suit is a more general copyright issue, dealing with a Belarus-based series titled The Theorists, which is almost a shot-for-shot remake of Chuck Lorre’s hugely successful series. Lorre creates title cards for the end of each episode, which usually flash past too quickly to be read. However, some fans pause the shot to read the full card, one of which called attention to The Theorists, calling it a 'rip-off.' However, the card goes on to say that TBBT cannot successfully sue the production company, as it is owned and operated by the Belarus government.
12 Greatest American Hero
The oldest show on this list, Greatest American Hero was an ‘80s comedy about an ordinary man who is granted extraordinary powers when he puts on a red suit. He could have been a true hero, but having lost the instructions to the suit, he ends up having to figure out his new powers on the fly, often with hilarious results.
Said suit gave our “hero” powers of flight, super-strength, invulnerability (to external injury), invisibility, and X-Ray vision – which also happen to be the powers of a slightly better-known hero: Superman. Despite the fact that the Greatest American Hero also had a range of powers that Superman does not possess, the two characters were so similar that Warner Brothers (who own DC Comics) filed a lawsuit against the show. It was eventually dismissed.
11 SToriBook Weddings
Tori Spelling is quite the reality queen, and along with her husband Dean McDermott has appeared in a slew of TV series about their life in Hollywood. One (short-lived) series was SToriBook Weddings, where Tori and Dean picked one engaged couple to help each week, turning their wedding into an over-the-top fairytale extravaganza.
The couple, along with the channel (Oxygen) and production companies, were sued for the show by producers Charles W. Malcolm, Denny O’Neil Jr. and Jake P. Hall. The trio claimed that the show was their idea, from the general concept down to the key couple. Two years after they pitched their idea for Wedding Rescue to the couple, SToriBook Weddings premiered. Tori and Dean settled the multi-million dollar lawsuit out of court.
10 The Glass House
A reality TV series following contestants as they live in a house filled with cameras, The Glass House never really got off the ground. Its sole season involved the audience voting on who would stay in the house to claim a cash prize, as well as voting on what the contestants would wear and eat (as far as possible, every detail of their lives was voted on). The players would also split into teams to compete in challenges.
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it was practically a remake of the hugely successful Big Brother franchise. The long-running franchise is near-identical, leading CBS to take ABC to court in an attempt to drop the show. To top it off, The Glass House was created and produced by multiple former Big Brother staff members, leading CBS to add trade secret misappropriation to their suit. CBS had an incredibly strong case, but ended up settling out of court. The Glass House was cancelled after the first season due to low viewership, or so they say.
9 The Voice
A twist on the usual talent-search shows, The Voice has the judges make their initial decisions “blind” – they can’t see the contestants until they vote yes or no on the basis of their voice alone. Based on The Voice Holland, the show now has versions in multiple countries, although the US series starring Christina Aguilera, Adam Levigne, Blake Shelton and CeeLo Green as hosts (among many others) remains the most popular.
In 2013, the reality show was sued by Michael Roy Barry, an Irishman who claimed that he had posted the idea online before the first season aired. His show, titled Voice Of America, was posted on TV Writers Vault in 2008 – a website that allows anyone to pitch ideas to producers. Barry claimed to have registered the idea with the US Copyright Office and the Writers Guild of America West, but lost his lawsuit. The Voice is currently airing its tenth season.
8 The League
The League is a rarity for network comedy, being only semi-scripted and relying on the actors to improvise much of the humor. Based on a group of friends with an intense passion for their fantasy football league, the characters are willing to do whatever it takes to become the reigning champion of the league and take home the Shiva trophy.
After the third season of the hit show, FX was sued by writers Joseph Balsamo and Peter Ciancarelli for similarities to their project (titled The Commissioner). The Commissioner was also centered on friends playing fantasy football, and going to extremes to win. Both shows featured a “reigning champion” as well as several character similarities. The two sought damages, as well as the destruction of any materials that infringed on their copyright, but The League soldiered on for several more seasons nonetheless.
50 Cent is much more than just a rapper, and is involved in all kinds of other industries, including book publishing and television. One of his TV projects, Power, is a series about a man with a double life – he's New York club owner by night, and a drug kingpin by...later that night. Lead James ‘Ghost’ St Patrick (Omari Hardwick) may have it all, but he is desperate to leave the drug business to be with his family.
50 Cent claimed that the show drew heavily from his own experiences, but writer Larry Johnson claims otherwise. Johnson is suing the rapper for basing Power on a book that he wrote (Tribulation of a Ghetto Kid), which was also about a nightclub owner with a goatee. Johnson allegedly submitted his manuscript to 50 Cent’s publishing house, G-Unit Books, where it was turned down. He believes, however, that before it was rejected, the book made its way up to the top to become the basis for the Starz show.
The lawsuit, reportedly for roughly $200 million, is still ongoing.
6 I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here
Like many other popular reality shows, I’m A Celebrity has become an international franchise, with multiple countries watching as various celebrities are sent to live together in the jungle with a minimum of creature comforts. As well as attempting to get along with each other, the celebrities complete various challenges and tasks to earn luxuries, with one celebrity being crowned King or Queen of the Jungle at the end.
In 2002, ABC and Granada TV were accused of ripping off the format of another hugely successful reality tv series – Survivor. The latter show (which premiered in 2000) is almost identical to I’m A Celebrity, with a group of non-celebrities in a similar environment. The formatting and challenges are near-identical, but CBS still lost the lawsuit to prevent I’m A Celebrity from airing.
Hip-hop dynasty drama Empire centers on the fictional Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), CEO of Empire Entertainment. After discovering that he has the degenerative disease ALS, Lucious must figure out which of his three sons (or his ex-wife Cookie, the real star of the show) should pick up the reins to his empire before his time runs out. Full of scheming family members and an impressive lifestyle, the series is a little heavy on the melodrama, but the incredible cast has made it a success.
However, Fox is being sued by author Ron Newt, who claims that the show is based on his own life story. Specifically, he claims that he showed his autobiographical book "Bigger Than Big" to the show’s star while in L.A. promoting it. However, the network claims that despite some surface similarities, the two shows are substantially different, and is seeking to dismiss the claims.
Dwayne Johnson stars in this comedy/drama about a retired football star trying to make it as a financial manager for other players. He becomes far more than just a money manager for his young players, and the show blends charm and comedy with the lavish lives of the ‘ballers.'
The show is only one season in, yet Dwayne Johnson and Mark Wahlberg (who doesn’t star in the show, but was involved in production) are already being sued by writers Everett Silas and Sherri Littleton for copyright infringement. The pair allege that Ballers bears a little too much of a resemblance to a project of theirs titled Off Season, about the lives of pro players on the off season. They are claiming that Ballers has “borrowed” elements of plot, characters, storylines and even specific scenes. We will have to wait and see how this latest lawsuit pans out. Meanwhile, Johnson (aka the hardest working man in showbiz) and Ballers are marching on to season 2, which is set to premiere in July.
3 New Girl
Zooey Deschanel stars as the ultimate manic-pixie-dream-girl (albeit with a little more depth than usual) who moves in with three single guys in a loft apartment. It’s lighthearted and funny, with a lot of awkward situations mined for laughs and some relatably weird characters. Deschanel herself is the perfect quirky star to play the offbeat Jess, and her charm has been a huge part of the show’s success.
Now in its fifth season, New Girl has spent the past few years in and out of the courts, as Fox, WME, Peter Chernin, and showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether have battled claims that the series' premise was stolen. According to plaintiffs Stephanie Counts and Shari Gold, the show is based on a project of theirs titled Square One. Like New Girl, Square One has a woman moving in with three men post-breakup, and was based on Counts’ real-life experiences. The lawsuit didn’t take, with a judge ruling that the similarities were too general.
2 Ray Donovan
Ray Donovan is a Boston thug turned Hollywood “fixer” – the man that any and every celebrity can turn to when they’ve done something wrong and just want it to go away. As you might imagine, it’s an incredibly lucrative job, and Ray lives a pretty cushy life…until his father shows up in town. Fresh off a twenty-year stint in prison, his reappearance in Ray’s life is a problem that even he can’t fix.
In the fall of 2014, Showtime was sued by writer Brian A. Larsen for stealing his concept. Larsen claimed that he pitched a show to the network in 2010 called The Swissman, which centered on a middle-aged fixer with a troubled past and family issues. The writer sued for damages and filed an injunction to stop the show from being aired. As Ray Donovan is about to launch its fourth season, obviously that failed to happen!
This convoluted drama about the survivors of a plane crash (among many, many other things!) glued audiences to screens for six seasons. Although it is known as much for its bizarre storylines and less-than-satisfactory ending, it was a pop-culture phenomenon from 2004 to 2010.
Toward the end of its hugely successful run, writer/producer Anthony Spinner attempted to sue the network (ABC) for copying his idea…from 1977! He claimed that the network based their show on a script he submitted thirty-odd years earlier, which was also provisionally titled Lost. Spinner’s Lost also told the story of a group of crash survivors with many similar characters and situations (although his characters were an Olympic team who crashed in the Himalayas). The network responded to say that they had no knowledge of this original script, and the courts agreed, finding in the network's favor.
Did we leave off any of your favorite series that were bogged down by lawsuits? Let us know in the comments!