Beauty and the Beast

Tale as old as time: Two TV rivals wind up with similar, competing shows (think ER vs. Chicago Hope). But ABC and The CW have gone a step further this winter, ordering two different pilots titled Beauty and the Beast. And should both projects go to series, neither side is going to want to give that title up — setting the stage for what could be a beastly showdown.

The well-recognizable title is a key reason to do either of these shows in the first place. Faced with a cluttered TV landscape, network executives are increasingly relying on familiar franchises and series reboots to give them a marketing edge. It's unlikely either network would want to give up the advantage of promoting an easy sell like Beauty and the Beast.

Why is this different from your average title conundrum? In this case, both sides can lay claim to the title Beauty and the Beast. The CW's drama is based on the 1980s CBS series starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman. And ABC's show is based on the fairy tale, which is an important title to ABC parent Disney (previously spawning a hit animated movie and a Broadway musical).

According to entertainment lawyer Aaron Moss, when Disney previously sought to register a trademark for the title Beauty and the Beast, it wound up with Disney's Beauty and the Beast. The U.S. Trademark Office noted at the time that the phrase Beauty and the Beast couldn't be trademarked, as it "represents a well-known fairy tale that is in the public domain."

"Generally, the first to use a title in connection with a series has superior rights, so long as the title has become closely associated with that program," Moss says. "However, in this case, the title is public domain work, and the law more freely allows the use of public domain titles without violating trademark law." 

It's not unusual for two competing pilots to sport the same title at the same time. But normally they're generic enough that one of the projects will simply change its name — which is what happened last year at ABC, when two comedy pilots were called Man Up. (Tim Allen's Man Up was eventually renamed Last Man Standing.)

Sometimes a TV title may also conflict with a similar one at the box office. Last year, NBC aired a sitcom titled Friends With Benefits at the same time that Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis' feature Friends With Benefits ran in theaters. But because they were in two different mediums (and NBC was burning its sitcom off during the dead of summer), both sides decided to downplay any potential confusion.

In the film world, the Motion Picture Association of America has a title registration service that helps determine who has the rights to a certain title. But no such system is in place on the TV side.

For now, both ABC and CW are free and clear to call their drama pilot Beauty and the Beast. The two sides will now wait to see if the other project goes to series, or if the other network will blink. If both dramas get series orders this May, Moss believes the two networks would likely broker some sort of deal without having to resort to a mediator. "There may be some horse trading going on" between the two sides, with one making a tweak to its title (perhaps adding a producer's or studio name).

"You're unlikely to see a situation where the same exact title is used for both shows, even though it would be legally permissible," Moss says. "From a marketing perspective I don't think anyone would want to invest a lot of money promoting a show that was going to be confused with a competing program." Says another Hollywood lawyer: "These things have a way of working themselves out... unless someone wants to make it ugly."

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