“While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, imitation in the form of outright copying is not flattery at all – it is intellectual property theft,” says the suit.
Jean Golden and Todd Walker, the creators and hosts of “Million Dollar Idea”, allege that Cowell and ABC conspired to steal their trade marked brand, copy the entire premise of a show already airing in national syndication on over 125 television stations, and market that idea as their own.
Golden and Walker began developing their reality show, which involves entrepreneurs pitching business ideas to a panel in front of a live studio audience, in 2001. Winners receive help in launching their product, building up to a final prize worth $1 million.
Since 2001, 30 episodes of the show have been shot and it has recently been nationally syndicated to over 125 television stations.
According to Golden and Walker, in early 2004, Walker pitched the show to Andrea Wong, Executive Vice President for Alternative Programming, Specials and Late Night at ABC Network.
She appeared enthused by the idea, said the pair, and so they followed up by sending Wong a pitch package that included selected media coverage of Million Dollar Idea, taped episodes of the show, a business plan and treatment for a national show. Also included was a confidentiality agreement.
However, in July this year, ABC and Simon Cowell – better known for his role in hit shows Pop Idol and American Idol – announced that they were making a new show, entitled “The Million Dollar Idea”.
"From stem to stern, each and every detail of Simon Cowell and ABC's mock 'Million Dollar Idea' is a patent rip-off of Todd and Jean's four-year labour of love," said Pierce O'Donnell, lawyer for Golden and Walker.
According to Golden, "it is incredibly ironic that our show, the premise of which is to promote, protect and reward small-town American ingenuity, was itself the victim of corporate theft and greed".
"What has happened to us is every inventor/entrepreneur's worst nightmare: having your idea stolen. The arrogance of Simon Cowell and ABC is beyond comprehension. Can you imagine stealing an idea and not even bothering to change the name of it?" she added.
ABC has yet to comment on the complaint.
Speaking to the BBC, Cowell’s spokesman, Max Clifford, said that with “just about every programme that comes out, you get someone saying 'this was my idea'. It's a fact of life.”
"I refute any of these charges," he added.
The suit is the latest in a series of legal actions over format rights, including disputes between the producers of the Survivor series and rival reality TV show I'm a Celebrity – Get Me Out Of Here; between Simon Cowell and fellow Pop Idol mogul Simon Fuller over X Factor; and between RDF and Fox over Wife Swap and Trading Spouses.