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Miscommunication. A problem. Some high jinks. And definitely some laughter.
From 1977 until 1984, that was the basic formula for Three’s Company, the John Ritter sitcom about a man living with two women and pretending to be gay to satisfy the crusty landlord.
Three decades after the show went off the air, that’s still the formula except nobody’s laughing in the latest Three’s Company episode — a legal dispute spurred by playwright David Adjmi, whose 3C explores the darker side of a gay man living with two women.
After 3C ran for two months off-Broadway, the play aimed to tour. Then Adjmi was hit with a cease-and-desist from DLT Entertainment, rights-owner of the old show. Now Adjmi wants to include 3C in a book of his plays and is asking a federal judge in New York for declaratory relief that it is not a copyright infringement.
“It is an original work for the stage that tells its own story with its own characters but employs elements of the iconic television series Three’s Company for the purposes of parody and criticism,” says Adjmi’s lawsuit.
The purpose and character of a copyright use is one of the four factors comprising a fair use analysis. Here, Adjmi says 3C comments on the “ways the television show presented and reinforced stereotypes about gender, age and sexual orientation” as well as “the times in which the show flourished — when sexual liberation had begun to reshape American society, and dominant cultural forces like television attempted to channel it in commercially profitable directions, while many forms of sexual oppression continued.”
The fair use analysis doesn’t end there. To make a determination, a judge will also be looking at the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and lastly, the effect of the use upon the potential market. Figuring out the boundary between derivative vs. parody when the subject of review is a comedy figures to be the judge’s toughest task.
The lawsuit quotes critics and other notables who saw 3C at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York City in 2012 and speaks about Adjmi’s “mashups” of various influences beyond the 1970s sitcom.
Despite that, DLT sees the play’s origins as unmistakable and believes that elements of the play hew too closely to Three’s Company. In an interview with the New York Times, Donald Taffner Jr., president of DLT Entertainment, addresses the effect of use on the market. He says, “Our position hasn’t changed — 3C is something that might harm our property, including a possible stage version of the television show that we’ve been actively pursuing.”
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