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The curious case of the American show Cold Case, which to some Canadians looks like a rip-off of the Canadian show Cold Squad, is now red-hot. At last, there is a suggestion of a fight over the fact that the new hit CBS series mimics the Canadian series.

In the last few days, Julia Keatley and Matt MacLeod, the creators of Cold Squad (an Alliance Atlantis production seen on CTV and Showcase), have retained a prominent Hollywood lawyer to represent them in talks with Warner Bros. (the studio that produces Cold Case for CBS) and producer Jerry Bruckheimer's company about the serious and troubling similarities between the two shows.

Cold Squad, which began airing here in 1997, is about a female detective named Ali (Julie Stewart) who solves old, unsolved crimes called "cold" cases. She works in an environment that pits her against male colleagues who often resent the fact that a female cop has such a prominent position and insists upon re-opening closed cases. Cold Case, which began airing in September on CBS (and on CTV in Canada, Sundays, 8 p.m.) also features a female detective, this time named Lilly (Kathryn Morris) who re-opens old cases and faces on-the-job problems working with resentful male colleagues. Ali and Lilly look physically similar.

That doesn't immediately mean that the Cold Squad people have a legal case for infringement of copyright. In copyright law, nobody has a monopoly on a concept. In fact, in order for an accusation of infringement of copyright to be valid, very specific details have to be shown to have been copied.

What makes this case intriguing is the connection between the "creator" of Cold Case and Canada. Meredith Stiehm (the credits for Cold Case say "created by Meredith Stiehm"), previously a writer for ER, visited the Canadian Film Centre in April of 2002 for two days of seminars on TV writing. Somebody who attended the session has told me that when Stiehm asked about Canadian TV drama in general, the concept of Cold Squad was explained to her.

In July of this year, when CBS presented Cold Case to assembled TV critics in L.A., the similarity between the shows was raised and a direct connection was glossed over by Stiehm and others involved in Cold Case. A Canadian asked the show's panel of executive producers, which included Stiehm, Jonathan Littman and Shaun Cassidy, "You may know there's a show on in Canada called Cold Squad that features an attractive female blond detective solving old cases. Have you had any response, legal or otherwise, from the producers of Cold Squad to the creation of Cold Case?"

Littman said, "No. I didn't even know there was a show." Stiehm said, "No. One person mentioned that to me. And I've heard about it. I've never seen it. But we haven't heard from them either." Then Littman dismissed the issue: "We don't get a lot of Canadian TV in L.A., so I haven't seen it."

The "one person" Stiehm mentions is probably Dan Gross, a reporter for The Philadelphia Daily News. Yesterday, Gross told me that in February of this year, when it was announced that Cold Case would be set in Philadelphia and parts of it filmed there, a Canadian reader called the paper and mentioned the extraordinary similarity to Cold Squad. Gross contacted Stiehm and asked her if she was familiar with the Canadian show . Her response was "Wow!" and she denied that she'd ever heard of it.

Whatever the merits of a possible case for the Canadian creators of Cold Squad, they have hired a top L.A. firm with considerable experience in the area of copyright law. Pierce O'Donnell of O'Donnell & Schaeffer is a Hollywood legal legend. In the late 1980s he represented Art Buchwald in the writer's successful case against Paramount Pictures over copyright infringement on the concept for the movie Coming to America. O'Donnell's book about the case, Fatal Subtraction: How Hollywood Really Does Business was a best-seller.

The lawyer specifically handling the Cold Case/ Cold Squad matter for MacLeod and Keatley is Carole Handler. She was named California Lawyer of the Year by a legal magazine for her successful handling of the one of the most complex copyright cases in Hollywood history: the ownership of the movie rights to the Marvel Comics hero Spider-Man. In an e-mail to me on Monday, Handler confirmed she had been retained by the creators of Cold Squad and said, "I cannot confirm any contacts or facts. We are investigating all of that, but our clients are very concerned about many striking similarities and have retained counsel to investigate the situation and if necessary, to take appropriate action."

I called and e-mailed the CBS publicists who represent Cold Case, asking for a reaction from Stiehm, but received no response. Keatley was en route to South Africa and unavailable, and MacLeod declined to comment.

This highly unusual case illuminates the difficult, tangled situation of Canadian writers, producers and broadcasters working in a vulnerable industry that relies on U.S. productions. Cold Squad is produced by Alliance Atlantis, which is in business with Jerry Bruckheimer, who is listed as an executive producer of Cold Case. The company co-produces his hit shows CSI and CSI: Miami.

Cold Squad is broadcast by CTV, which has acquired the rights to broadcast Cold Case in Canada. While everybody wants to benefit from a hit American show, there is no doubt that the value of Cold Squad is diminished by the success of an American show that mimics it. Perception is everything in the television racket, as the people behind Cold Case may be about to find out.

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