The entertainment industry is built on ideas – a screenwriter’s idea for a movie, a songwriter’s idea for a song, a choreographer’s idea for a dance. Some of the most furious disputes in entertainment law deal with allegations of stealing ideas.

Recently, a man filed a lawsuit against the producers of a musical theater adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ infamous novel “American Psycho,” alleging that the production was his idea. The musical recently opened in London, and the man claims he is being shut out of the production.

The man claims that some years ago he worked on developing a musical version of the novel, about a Wall Street banker who is also a serial killer. According to his claim, the man left that project after a year, and signed a separation agreement with the production company, which he said secured his rights to the project. The producers of the musical under production deny his claims, and say that he never had a contract with them.

The case may rest on contract law, rather than intellectual property law, because of a widely misunderstood aspect of copyright law. In theater, as in other fields, copyright law doesn’t protect ideas; it protects the expression of ideas. In other words, a playwright can have a great idea for a musical, but generally, until she writes it down in a screenplay or some other means of expression, she has no property rights to the idea. However, if the playwright had a contract with a production company, the terms of the contract may give her – or the production company – some property rights in the work.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “Man Claims Rights to ‘American Psycho’ Musical,” Matt Reynolds, Jan. 14, 2014