By Erin Somers

A leaked memo to employees of the New York-based TV network, ABC, has caused a stir with the Format Recognition and Protection Agency (FRAPA), a Cologne, Germany-based international organization that aims to safeguard formats. On June 14, 2008, ABC Studios executive vice president Howard Davine sent out a memo to the network’s executive producers, which, according to FRAPA’s interpretation, hinted that producers should circumvent intellectual property laws.

The memo, which was originally published by Los Angeles entertainment industry blog Deadline Hollywood Daily in late June, encouraged producers to “carefully scrutinize” whether it is “necessary or appropriate” to license foreign formats. Additionally, it implies that involving foreign producers in projects could be costly and inefficient.

FRAPA, which represents about 100 companies from around the globe, did not directly approach ABC with a formal reprimand. However, the organization issued a press release on August 14:

“In FRAPA’s view,” said agency chairman, Ute Biernat in a statement, “Davine’s memo can be seen to be encouraging ABC producers and show runners not to license formats honestly. If this is found to be the case, FRAPA will do everything in its power to help protect the property of its members in the international creative community.” Biernet, who is also the CEO of German production company Grundy Light Entertainment, went on to outline the mission of the organization, stressing FRAPA’s belief that “formats belong to the people who create them and should not be used unlawfully by any third party.”

ABC responded to FRAPA’s accusations on August 15. Sarah Hird, a PR rep from the TV network, summarized the statement for VideoAge. “The intention of the memo was greatly misconstrued and misread,” she said, “ABC Studios has been and continues to be committed to the protection of intellectual property and rights holders, as our standards and business practices have demonstrated.”

Reports from behind the scenes also indicate that the memo was misinterpreted. According to one anonymous executive, Davine’s note merely suggested that the general underlying premise of a format might not need to be licensed.

However, ABC has also been criticized by some other studio executives for both the memo and its handling of the situation, though its August 15 statement will no doubt help to diffuse the situation. Prior to the statement, President of Fox Reality David Lyle, who is a member of FRAPA’s board, was especially vocal, suggesting that if ABC continued to remain willfully silent about the matter, then producers around the world should feel free to help themselves to the underlying premise of popular kids series Hannah Montana or even Mickey Mouse, both produced by ABC parent company, Disney.

The ABC incident has put a spotlight on intellectual property appropriation, which has become an issue in the U.S. in recent years, with the growing popularity of formats imported from Europe and Latin America. The success of formats like Ugly Betty (originating in Colombia) and The Office (originating in the U.K.), has proven that foreign series can grab big audiences and caused producers to look abroad for inspiration.

FRAPA, an independent non-profit organization, was established in 2000, when a group of executives and producers from around the globe recognized the need to combat international format piracy. The association’s goals are succinctly described in its mission statement: “FRAPA aims to ensure that television formats are respected by the industry and protected by law as intellectual property.” In the case of ABC’s controversial memo, it has vowed to do what it takes to preserve the intellectual property at stake.