The ABC rip-off

I was recently tipped off to this story about how ABC stole a concept from a popular Youtube series.  Basically, these guys (called The Fine Bros) make mini-‘Lost’ episodes with action figures.  ABC decided to run with their idea and create an identical web series in-house.

It seems like every article I’ve read about this is dancing around the issue, saying things like, “Did ABC steal?”  Of course they did.  Look, if a unique series like this is getting millions of views on Youtube, you can be sure that ABC knows about it.  They’re not stupid — they will eventually come across this stuff.

Anyways, ABC definitely made the wrong move in this situation.  Instead of reaching out to these guys, thanking them for all their hard work and making ‘Lost’ that much more popular with its fans, they just decided, “Eh, we can do this on our own.”

ABC: You CAN’T do this on your own.

First of all, you’ll instantly build up animosity with the people who (used to) support you.  The Fine Bros have a substantial audience (over 20,000 subscribers).  You think they might complain about this to their followers?  They should and they will.

Secondly, your series will never be as enjoyable as The Fine Bros because TFB has nothing to lose.  ABC has a big expensive brand to protect, while TFB is just a few guys having fun making videos.  They have a lot more flexibility when it comes to making funnier and edgier content, while anything ABC puts out has to be safe and watered down for the masses.

This is just a stupid move on ABC’s part.  The Fine Bros have great production values AND they’ve already established an online fan base.  So why aren’t they getting the credit they deserve?

If you have diehard fans producing extra content for you on their own time, you don’t punish them — you reward them. ABC should have hired these guys instead of trying to delegitimize them.

10 comments on “The ABC rip-off

  1. Pingback: “Musings” and people-power « Two Notes Ahead

  2. Two counterpoints. First, as I understand it, ABC owns the rights to Lost and all of its characters, so the Fine Bros could be said to be the ones perpetrating the rip-off (though it could possibly be argued as fair use under parody).

    Second, ABC probably has staff writers under union contract to cover this kind of thing. And as you point out, the Fine Bros are probably edgier than ABC would like associated with their content anyway.

    Is there a better way to have handled this? Probably so. In fact, they might have been best served by just leaving the concept alone rather than either trying to replicate it or engage with the original.

  3. @Chuck- I hope you’re just playing devil’s advocate when you say TFB is the one ripping ABC off. It’s absolutely fair use under parody, as you said.

    And ABC does have staff writers, but to cherry-pick a unique concept like this and just run with it is pretty bad. It’d be one thing if TFB had only been doing it for two weeks and had 5 fans, but they have been doing this for over a year and they’ve had MILLIONS of views.

    ABC really has no excuse in this situation. You don’t kick fans to the curb, especially in the online world where evil acts like this get brought to the surface.

  4. @Chuck

    As the Fines stated on their website, it isn’t about legal recourse or whether or not their idea was stolen.

    The simple matter is that ABC could have contacted the Fines about doing this concept for the show. They could then promote the videos to their 20k subscriber base, build a relationship with budding filmmakers, and have a great marketing opportunity. JJ Abrams and ABC could say, “Hey, we really liked what these guys were doing, so we contacted them about helping to create additional content for the show.”

    Everyone is wondering how new media and social networking will reflect with traditional Hollywood. This would be a great way to bridge the gap.

    They really missed an opportunity to do something unique and include a great concept into the umbrella of their show.

  5. While I am playing devil’s advocate, I’m not sure that what they do would qualify as fair use. Not everything that can be called a parody qualifies. I’m not an attorney, but as Sean said, that’s not even really the point.

    The bottom line is that ABC seems to have stolen the idea outright, which was a bad call. They’d have been better off just leaving it alone if they weren’t in a position (for whatever reason) to engage them directly.

    As for why they chose not to hire the Fine Bros, I’m not sure, but I’m not quite ready to assume that they just decided to screw them over either. I know you’re not buying it, but there are possible issues with the writer’s guild, and there are possible issues with explicitly condoning derivative works as well.

    Or maybe they just decided to rip it off rather than go about things the right way. But the question of WHY they ripped off the material is secondary. They DID rip it off, and that’s inexcusable.

  6. I do not agree with ABC here BUT…….

    I hate to say it (get ready lawyers to hate me) but I see this type of behavior in the corporate world all the time and it is MOST OFTEN a result of a conversation of middle to senior management not wanting to risk any legal issues if contact is made to a party and they do not wish to be onboard.

    Despite what we may think or want to believe, these decision makers are not dumb people. Bottom-line, I would bet a fair sum of money the conversation at ABC went like this.

    “Let’s reach out to these guys and see if they want to play ball with us and work on some ideas”

    “What if they don’t want anything to do with us? They then will have a trail of conversations in which they can come back to us and say we stole their idea or a host of other legal issues. That will be a disaster either financially, legally and/or public relations”

    “The least amount of risk is taking the idea and forming it ourselves and riding out the current”

    Sorry guys..in the corporate world litigation conversation are ALWAYS ABOVE the basic Revenue – Expenses conversation. Are you surprised when most of us can say at least 1 out of 6 of our friends are lawyers?

  7. @MG – And that’s why it WON’T WORK! Because of ABC’s focus on the bottom line & legal issues (instead of solely concentrating on making great content), they will fail in the long run.

    It’s easy to dismiss this by saying, “Hey it was better for them from a legal standpoint to just steal the idea.” But that’s missing point. When you’re involved in social media, you can’t be evil. It’s unsustainable.

    The DNA of traditional media and the DNA of social media do not mix. One has to largely be abandoned for the other. When you try to fuse them, it’s a disaster.

  8. Well said.

    Unfortunately changing the mindset of the decision makers of an established corporate structure will be met with resistance and will effectively produce more of the similar decisions we have witnessed with ABC in regard to this conversation.

    We saw this in the Telco and US automotive industries as they evolved and the dynamics of the traditional industry was outpaced with new innovations and market forces.

    The one positive difference I can see with the examples mentioned is we have a unique feedback mechanism with social media that allows for unprecedented transparency.

    Unfortunately I believe the best we can hope for is an increase in the rate at which changes in thinking and corporate decision making occur.

    It’s a start…Cheers!

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