Established television writer Ian Gurvitz once said, “Hollywood does not steal ideas. Hollywood copies, imitates, panders and plagiarizes, rips off and robs, but Hollywood does not steal ideas because in Hollywood, ideas are worthless.” Tamara Johnson disagrees. This month she filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of Los Angeles claiming the producers of the VH1 hit, Hollywood Exes stole her idea and is now seeking over $1 million dollars in damages.
According to her complaint, Johnson wrote a treatment in 2008 which detailed a reality show about the lives of ex-wives and/or ex-girlfriends of high profile Hollywood celebrities who have a child or children by those celebrities. The name of her reality show was “The Hollywood ExClub” and was inspired by her real-life experience as an ex-girlfriend of Eddie Murphy and mother of one of his children (Tamara and son Christian, pictured). Her treatment was registered with the Writer’s Guild of America and outlined the format of the show as well as the show’s theme, tone and plot.
Once the show was registered Johnson began pitching the show to various production companies and networks, including VH1. She also had several conversations about the show with Vernon Lynch, an established television producer and Eddie Murphy’s step-brother. According to her complaint, Johnson entered into both an implied-in-fact contract and oral contract with Lynch whereas he agreed that if he used the treatment to produce and broadcast a television series, Johnson would be reasonably compensated.
On June 27, 2012, VH1 aired the first episode of Hollywood Exes and 11 subsequent episodes were produced by Lynch-Dyson Entertainment and Shed Media. According to the complaint, Johnson was never compensated nor accorded ‘Creator’ or ‘Executive Producer’ credit on the show. She is now seeking over one million dollar in damages as well as attorneys’ fees on the claims of breach of implied-in-fact contract, breach of oral contract and promissory fraud (a promise to perform with no intention of actually performing the promise).
Will Johnson prevail? One of the key elements Johnson will have to prove is that Lynch had access to her idea and that Hollywood Exes and Hollywood ExClub are similar in one or more material respects. A common defense utilized in court is that the idea was an “independent creation.” According to Johnson’s complaint, in an interview with publicist Tara Thomas, Lynch and his co-producer Dyson claimed they created the series when “God gave them a clear vision.” If Lynch and Dyson can prove that they independently created the idea for this show, Johnson will have an extremely difficult time prevailing.
These types of lawsuits are commonplace in the entertainment industry and very few plaintiffs prevail. It is especially difficult for plaintiffs who do not have established writing or producing credits. Proving damages is an easier matter when the plaintiff has a track record and a demonstrated earning capacity. While the Season 2 premiere of Hollywood Exes garnered 1.7 million viewers, the uncertainty of a Season 3 continues to loom.
(Photo credit: BlackCelebKids.com)
Jaia A. Thomas is a bi-coastal sports and entertainment attorney. She is a graduate of Colgate University (BA) and The George Washington University Law School (JD). She also holds a Certificate in Television, Film and New Media Production from University of California, Los Angeles. For more information: www.jathomaslaw.com