Commenter Clarence reminds us that, as always, there’s a quote from the good years of The Simpsons that sums up how television works:
Roger Myers, Jr.: Okay, maybe my Dad did steal Itchy, but so what? Animation is built on plagiarism! If it weren’t for someone plagiarizing The Honeymooners, we wouldn’t have The Flintstones! If someone hadn’t ripped off Sgt. Bilko, there’d be no Top Cat! Huckleberry Hound, Chief Wiggum, Yogi Bear? Andy Griffith, Edward G. Robinson, Art Carney. Your honor, if you take away our right to steal ideas, where are they gonna come from? Her?
Marge: Uh… Um… How about “Ghost Mutt?”
The cool thing is how all of us, instinctively, can understand the difference between what is legally considered plagiarism and what is just “borrowing.” So while Roger Myers Jr. (son of the creator of Scratchy and the plagiarizer of Itchy) may say that The Flintstones was plagiarized from The Honeymooners, we all understand that that’s hyperbole: no one ever really thought that Jackie Gleason could sue Hanna-Barbera. But why is that, when everybody knew and acknowledged that The Flintsones is based on The Honeymooners?
Well, it’s because The Flintstones doesn’t actually take any of the actual specific details of the format of The Honeymooners. Even apart from the whole caveman thing, there’s not a single thing about the two formats that is exactly the same: Fred is not a bus driver, doesn’t threaten to hit his wife and doesn’t get insulted by her, lives in a suburban home instead of a cramped urban apartment. The Flintstones resembles The Honeymooners only in the most general things: both shows are about a fat working-class guy, his thin wife, and their wacky good-natured neighbour who gets into get-rich-quick schemes with the guy. But all those things are as old as the sitcom itself, so even in combination, none of them are enough to qualify The Flintstones as actual plagiarism. What The Flintstones did is what many if not most TV shows do: instead of borrowing the format of another successful work, it borrows its spirit. And you can’t copyright spirit, or inspiration, or concepts like “fat loudmouthed hero” and “get-rich-quick scheme.” The result is that you can make a show that is recognizably inspired by something else while still being, by any standard, an original work. Neat trick.
I’ll add finally that there are some real artistic advantages to the “same but different” approach, quite apart from the crass business advantages of copying a pre-existing work without having to pay for it. Sometimes a show really is better off borrowing ideas from other works and then going out on its own, instead of sticking to a format that already exists. It’s one thing if the format really inspires the person who does the show. Obviously Larry Gelbart found the specific format of “wacky army doctors at a M*A*S*H unit in the Korean war” inspiring, and it would not have made sense to try to do an original show based on a similar idea. (Other shows like Mother, Jugs and Speed tried to copy the spirit of M*A*S*H and they all bombed.) Or sometimes there’s a show like The Office where the subject matter isn’t very original, and it’s the format (the execution of the basic subject matter) that makes it unique and interesting. There would have been little point in trying to do something similar to The Office without buying The Office as a property. But in other cases, a show can do something different from its unacknowledged subject matter, or maybe even surpass it. And as long as the new show doesn’t actually take anything that’s unique to the original, it’s all legal.