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Is it really possible to own a concept?

imageThe news this week that Love Productions have accepted a lucrative offer from Channel 4 and will move The Great British Bake Off away from its home at the BBC has raised a number of questions for us creatives.

Clearly, the production company owns the intellectual property to the format of the show. Yet the announcement that presenters Mel and Sue will not be making the move along with it introduces some thorny issues. How much do the established presenting team bring to the table (pardon the pun) when considering the value of the concept?

We have already been required to make a judgment on this very question in relation to the massively popular car show Top Gear. The format belonged to the BBC, but when Clarkson, May and Hammond left en masse, what worth did the format still have? The latest series without them indicated that viewers remain undecided. I find this an interesting comparison, as there is far more to the concept of Top Gear (in my opinion) than there is to that of the Bake Off.

Can you really own the rights to the concept of a baking competition? Surely not. They’ve been taking place in tents on village greens up and down the country for hundreds of years. There would be nothing stopping the BBC from launching another baking programme along similar lines with the same presenters. As Jeremy Clarkson said after his dismissal from Top Gear last year, he would simply make another car show, there were plenty about.

But is it really as simple as that? The Bake Off is a huge and recognisable brand. From the music to the showstopper finale, the format will be tough to replicate well, even with Mel and Sue on board. If reports are correct, the concept of the technical challenge and the signature dish are worth up to £25m a year for a prospective broadcaster. Their pulling power for audiences and users of social media are perceived as so strong.

But I am fascinated by the idea that a concept can be owned in such a decisive way. As a novelist and indie publisher, I have always understood that ideas cannot be copyrighted. To prove plagiarism in the fiction genre, to steal a plot line or scenario wouldn’t be enough. Another writer would have to have lifted chunks of text word-for-word in order for you to claim a breach of your copyright. Fair or not, this is the way it works in books.

Perhaps in tv terms it is easier to protect your ideas. I don’t know enough about the intellectual property law to be able to say. All I know is that a book without its best characters loses a significant part of its appeal, even if the setting and storyline remain the same. I suspect that the Bake Off that so many of us have adored since its launch in 2010 will suffer a similar fate.

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