A New York federal judge ruled that an off-Broadway play based on the TV series Three’s Company was protected by the fair-use doctrine as a parody and thus did not infringe the copyright for the series.

Playwright David Adjmi wrote a play called 3C, which was produced for a limited run in 2012.

DLT Entertainment, which holds the copyright for Three’s Company, tried to stop performances of the play on the grounds that it infringed DLT’s copyright, and sent a cease-and-desist letter to the producers shortly after the play opened.

Adjmi wished to authorize the publication of his play and future performance, so he brought an action seeking a declaration that his play did not infringe the Three’s Company copyright.

DLT brought counterclaims for copyright infringement.

Scandalous

In her ruling, Judge Loretta A. Preska noted that Three’s Company was one of the most popular TV shows in the 1970s, almost continuously among the top 10 in the Nielsen ratings. As described on the cover of the Season One DVD, the three roommates at the center of the series

tripped and jiggled through a world of slapstick pratfalls, sexy misunderstandings and some of the most scandalously titillating comedy America had ever seen.

The court described one sequence in the opening episode as “more palm-to-forehead funny than hand-in-head serious, replete with laugh track” and went on to provide summaries of the seven episodes at issue.

In Adjmi’s play, as in Three’s Company, the “lead male character is an aspiring chef; the blonde female lead is the daughter of a minister; and the brunette female lead is a florist.”

However, noted the court, “the parties agree on little else regarding the extent to which 3C copies Three’s Company.”

Philosophical Musings

The play opens with quotes from Shakespeare and the Bible and “assumes a heavy tone from the outset,” touching on topics like death and sexual assault.  The dialogue includes “moments of compassion interrupted by often manic outbursts, along with philosophical musings sprinkled throughout.”

The court found that:

3C uses the raw material of Three’s Company “in the creation of new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understandings” and is “the very type of activity that the fair use doctrine intends to protect for the enrichment of society.” … There is no question that 3C copies the plot premise, characters, sets, and certain scenes from Three’s Company. But it is well recognized that “[p]arody needs to mimic an original to make its point, and so has some claim to use the creation of its victim’s … imagination.”

The court concluded:

Despite the many similarities between the two, 3C is clearly a transformative use of Three’s Company. 3C conjures up Three’s Company by way of familiar character elements, settings, and plot themes, and uses them to turn Three’s Company‘s sunny 1970s Santa Monica into an upside-down, dark version of itself. DLT may not like that transformation, but it is a transformation nonetheless.

The case is David Adjmi v. DLT Entertainment Ltd., Case. No. 1:14-CV-00568, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Fair Use

According to Leech Tishman IP lawyer Thomas Peistrup, “fair use” is widely misperceived among the general public. “It is an affirmative defense to a claim of copyright infringement, and is determined with reference to a four-factor test,” Mr. Peistrup explained. “However, practically speaking, courts are often guided by determining whether or not a work is ‘transformative’.”  Mr. Peistrup observed application of “fair use” is notoriously subjective, but that rights-holders must nonetheless remain mindful of the defense when enforcing their copyright rights.