Several years ago, aspiring producer Jack Piuggi had an idea for a reality TV show. What if there were a documentary-style “faux” dating competition – that also explored the role of internet fame in romantic pursuits?

“What I was going to do was bring in contestants that we had cast off of Instagram,” said Piuggi, 27. “Next, I was going to have my friends and family sit on a board panel, like American Idol, and we were going to decide whether these were date-worthy women or not.” The competition, however, would also reveal that his male friends would engage in base, selfish behavior and do pretty much anything for a date.

The project, Instafamous, was inspired by Piuggi and his friends’ efforts to avoid boredom during the pandemic. “We had been trying to date through Instagram because – what else were we doing, sitting at home on the couch?” he said.

After several discussions with producers, Piuggi thought Instafamous would be his big break, but these conversations resulted in an even larger heartbreak, he claims. As Piuggi alleges in a recent lawsuit, several producers, in cahoots with entertainment giants, ultimately lifted key elements of his idea to make the smash HBO reality series FBoy Island – a show where women contestants must discern which of the men describe themselves as “nice guys” or “fuck boys”.

“I just gave you guys my baby and you took it,” Piuggi said of his emotional reaction to the alleged idea-theft. “I said to them: ‘Guys, I’ll keep writing the show for free, all I’m asking for is credit because then I have the ability to go on…and I’ll get a job with somebody else at that point. They were like, ‘Sorry, we don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

While Piuggi’s lawsuit alleges typical business claims including copyright infringement, breach of contract, breach of “the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing”, and unjust enrichment, it also gives a unique glimpse into the confusing relationship between intellectual property law and reality TV. More, it raises the question: do intellectual property claims get even more complicated in a world where reality is packaged as art and art is packaged as reality?

Kevin J Greene, professor of law at Southwestern Law School, said that several legal claims could be made over this dispute: one involves theft of the idea, or “idea misappropriation”, and another involves a potential copyright claim.

“Copyright doesn’t protect ideas, and never has and never will,” Greene said. “Things like formats, ways of structuring shows – which is really how the reality TV industry makes its money, it’s the format of the show that sells it, so to speak – are notoriously difficult to protect under copyright law.”

In a New York court, going the idea route would mean treating the idea as “property”. Explains Greene: “You have to show two things: you’ve got to show that the idea is sufficiently novel, and you’ve got to show that it’s concrete, so it has to be delineated, it has to be set forth.”

In California, this claim might have an easier time. “All you have to show is that there was at least an implied agreement that if you submitted the idea, the person who submitted the idea would be compensated.” (The progression of such litigation is also impacted by where it’s filed; as there’s no federal copyright law on exactly this, federal courts would look to their respective states’ authorities.)

“In general, the intersection of what’s art and what’s reality is very common,” said Jeffrey R Bragalone, a partner at Bragalone, Olejko Saad PC. “Whether you’re talking about a reality television show or a documentary or even a Warhol Polaroid, all of those have an intersection of art and reality and typically, a concept or something – like a reality television show – is not in itself copyrightable.”

Things that are copyrightable might include media such as motion pictures, visual works, and sound recordings, among others. “As long as your art is in that media then you can obtain a copyright on it.”

With a concept or idea, Bragalone said, usually one has to pursue a patent to protect it or seek a copyright. With a reality television show, “you have to be very specific and actually write down as much as possible, how the plot would go, show the characters, etc.”.

“I think the success of that [copyright claim] is going to depend on how detailed the individual was in describing his concept or his idea in the plot summary that he copyrighted.”

In Piuggi’s telling, he took steps to protect his concept so that it was his and not something ephemeral that could be up for grabs. Prior to speaking with a producer at Grand Street Media, Piuggi had him sign a non-disclosure agreement. During the call, the producer seemed to understand Piuggi’s concept, describing the program as a “dating show where no one finds love”.

Piuggi also sent a 40-page treatment describing his concept. Grand Street passed on Instafamous but referred Piuggi to another outfit, Good For You Productions, he claims. (Piuggi said he completed registration with the US copyright office in December 2022.)

Not long after Grand allegedly passed, Piuggi had a video call with a producer from Good For You on 15 January 2021 and re-pitched Instafamous, also requiring a non-disclosure agreement beforehand, his suit claims. He also claims that he suggested casting a good friend for the show in a subsequent call.

Just “hours later”, this friend “received a call from [a producer], and it was announced by his girlfriend at the time that he had been cast in HBO’s ‘first ever documentary style reality show’” – later revealed as FBoy Island, the suit contends.

Piuggi then saw that an HBO documentary called Fake Famous was being released which, he alleges, bore striking similarities to Instafamous. Per the lawsuit, Piuggi “realized his concepts were being fed to HBO”.

Grand Street denied having a relationship with Fake Famous or HBO but, Piuggi’s suit charges, the company has close connections with HBO, as its owner is related to a producer who worked on shows for the entertainment giant. Piuggi’s suit alleges that Good For You shared information about his show idea.

“There was no coincidence,” Piuggi said.

However, some might be skeptical as to whether the similarities were intentional. Fake Famous was reportedly in development before Piuggi’s conversation. (The director of Fake Famous, Nick Bilton, told the Guardian that he pitched it in 2018 and started filming in early 2019; it was released in February 2021, which has also been noted by Piuggi’s skeptics.) Again, this points to the complicated relationship between copyright, art and reality TV: -ow can one make a claim that an idea was stolen when ideas and formats could spontaneously overlap?

“This is a frivolous lawsuit. We have no relationship with HBO. Based on publicly available information, the shows in question were developed and in production, or fully filmed, before our limited dealing with Mr Piuggi, nor are they similar to his claimed show idea,” Grand Street said in a statement.

Good For You did not comment. The other defendants in the case responded to requests for comment.

Asked about the timing, Piuggi expressed skepticism and said “there will be more information coming out during the [trial] that will support my allegations”.

2023-06-05T10:45:14Z dg43tfdfdgfd