"Big Brother" Lawsuit Survives First Round

By Josh Grossberg
Call it a case of sibling rivalry.

A U.S. District Court Judge in Chicago has refused to dismiss a $20 million lawsuit filed by the estate of George Orwell against CBS and Big Brother, paving the way for the case to go to trial.

Judge James F. Holderman denied CBS' motion to halt the copyright-infringement case brought brought by Chicago attorney Marvin Rosenblum, who accuses the network of illegally swiping the Big Brother moniker from Orwell's 1984 and deceiving the public into thinking the author's classic novel was the origin of the show.

"We're very pleased with judge's ruling," Rosenblum's attorney, William Coulson, says by phone from his Chicago office. "It was decided last month to deny CBS' motion to dismiss and we're now in the process of exchanging documents...We take the approach that we're going to trial."

Claiming both copyright and trademark violations, Rosenblum's suit alleges CBS and parent company Viacom also misappropriated the late author's name by calling Big Brother's production company Orwell Productions.

"The character Big Brother is copyrightable as far as the whole context," adds Coulson. "We've alleged qualitatively that they've borrowed it...especially in the context that the home and its members are being watched 24 hours a day."

Rosenblum acquired the film and television rights to 1984 in the early '80s and produced the subsequent 1985 feature film starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. He has also been actively developing a computer game and TV show based on the novel.

"[Rosenblum]'s assuming people are going to draw on the references to Orwell, which I think comes more under a copyright claim than a trademark because copyright is an expression of an idea," says one copyright attorney familiar with the case.

While CBS called it a cross between The Truman Show and Survivor (and made no mention of 1984), Big Brother still managed to draw the ire of Rosenblum, who filed suit against the show last August during its run.

CBS' Big Brother pitted 10 strangers in a Real World-style setting--a sparse 1,800-square-foot two-bedroom house wired to the max with 28 cameras and 60 microphones, where contestants lived for three months last summer with no outside contact. Their goal: Survive weekly challenges inside the house while avoiding getting the boot by television viewers in hopes of taking home the $500,000 grand prize. CBS is reportedly considering running a second season of the show.

"We are confident that despite the outcome of the portions of this motion, that we will prevail at the end of the case," says CBS spokeswoman Gil Schwartz.

While the judge allowed Rosenblum's claims of trademark violation to go forward under the federal Lanham Act, he did however deal CBS a minor legal victory by rejecting two copyright claims filed under Illinois law. A status hearing has been set for February 2.

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