This is an interesting question with a fairly complex answer.
The simple answer is they are not. In theory, I can watch "Wheel of
Fortune" on TV, and then make my own show called "Pick the right
letters to win" with a very similar format, so long as I don't use the
same graphics, name or other specific works. The reason being that an
idea cannot be protected. Works are copyright, names can be
trademarked, and specific products can be patented.
The idea of format sales is driven mainly by the desire to purchase a
ready-made answer with all the required work already done. However
it's certainly not unheard of for knock-off shows to come along
without format licencing.
One TV Format related website puts it like this:
"The law does not recognise formats because, from a legal point of
view, formats are ideas which are not covered by traditional copyright
and patent legislation."
A similar question was posted here earlier this year
(http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=146815) - I will
revisit some of the findings I made when I researched that (in the
end, it was answered by another researcher).
Copyright can only apply to a physical work - so a format idea, is not
covered, but the artwork and so forth are covered.
American Bar Association, Copyright Basics
Cornell Law, Law about... Copyright
Trademarks can apply to logos, product names and associated marks.
"Survivor" for example, is a CBS trademark. This will protect only
those things however.
American Bar Association, Basic Facts About Registering A Trademark
Patents only apply to physical creations really. So the wheel, or
board in Wheel of Fortune may be patented, but the show cannot.
American Bar Association
Those are really the three main protections in US and International
law, and none can protect a format as an abstract idea.
This is something a lot of companies struggle with, and something they
are aiming to address. In doing so they have created FRAPA, the Format
Recognition And Protection Association.
In short, they can't be totally protected, and they aren't, however
all is not lost for format creators.
Here are some interesting links, mostly from FRAPA, about the issue:
Format Protection in Germany, France and Great Britain
Can television formats be owned?
General Guide to Format Protection
I hope this answers you question. Let me know if I should clarify anything.
Clarification of Answer by
02 Dec 2003 16:12 PST
Well the gameshow itself, which is an abstract idea is offered no protection.
In the case of something like Wheel of Fortune, however, the logo and
title have trademark protection. The puzzle board is possibly
protected by Patent (although I couldn't find one). The shows
themselves (as screened or on tape) are protected by Copyright, as are
transcripts of the show and any other physical material produced by
A paper format, something like a pitch document, is automatically
protected by copyright. That copyright can be registered for better
protection. However that only protect the writing itself, not the
ideas within it.
If you are planning to pitch a gameshow, it would be a good idea to
get people to sign a confidentiality agreement before pitching, that
way stolen ideas can be pursued as a breach of confidence.
It isn't usually possible to register a trademark for a property
before it actually exists, so you may hav difficulty trademarking the
name before pitch, but if you are able that could provide an
In the case of Wheel of Fortune, here are some current trademarks they seem to own:
Wheel Of Fortune (Typed Drawing)
Wheel Of Fortune 2000 (Design plus words, letters or numbers)
Wheel Of Fortune 2000 (Typed Drawing)
More can be found with a search at the USPTO:
You will notice that the same mark is registered multiple times, in
different categories (such as TV, slot machine and board game in this
I hope that helps.