Citing ‘Greatest American Hero’ Case, Judge Rules ‘Three’s Company’ Parody Doesn’t Violate Copyright: Media

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In a significant free-speech victory, Loretta A. Preska, Chief United States District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York, ruled Tuesday that 3C, a play that parodies the 1970s sitcom Three’s Company, does not infringe on that copyrighted program. The ruling ends nearly three years of court tennis during which playwright David Adjmi was prohibited from publishing the script of his black comedy and pursuing new productions. And in her ruling, Judge Preska cites the famous Superman v. Greatest American Hero case still discussed today.

"3C" Opening Night - After PartyAfter the original off-Broadway show at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater shut down, DLT Entertainment claimed copyright infringement. Judge Preska upheld Adjmi’s claim that his use of the plot, premise, characters, sets and certain scenes was protected under the doctrine of fair use. Preska found that Adjmi’s use of the Three’s Company essentials to create a second work of art that transformed the first was enough to support her finding.

3C is a fair use of Three’s Company,” she wrote. “The play is a highly transformative parody of the television series that, although it appropriates a substantial amount of Three’s Company, is a drastic departure from the original…Equating the two to each other as a thematic or stylistic matter is untenable; 3C is a fair use “sheep,” not an “infringing goat.”

The judge goes on to interpret copyright law with clarity and even urgency: “That body of law is designed to foster creativity,” she wrote. “It does so by, in effect, managing two monopolies in knowledge: granting one in original work to reward its creator, but ensuring it is limited, temporary, and does not operate as a moratorium on certain ideas. The law is agnostic between creators and infringers, favoring only creativity and the harvest of knowledge.” She then cites the highly entertaining 1983 Warner Bros. v. ABC infringement case, which found that ABC’s Greatest American Hero series did not infringe on WB’s Superman film franchise, declaring that “further protection against parody does little to promote creativity, but it places substantial inhibition upon the creativity of authors adept at using parody.”

"3C" Opening Night - After PartyIn 3C, according to Howard Sherman, an arts administrator, producer and director of the recently created Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama, Adjmi used Three’s Company as the template for a despairing look at what life in Apartment 3C might have been had John Ritter’s character actually been gay; had the landlord been genuinely predatory; and so on. “It did what many good parodies do: take a known work and turn it on its ear, making comment not simply on the work itself, but the period and attitudes in which it was first seen.”

Adjmi, who was represented by Bruce E.H. Johnson of Davis Wright Tremaine, also had support from the Dramatists’ Guild Legal Defense Fund, which filed an amicus curiae brief.

I learned all of this tonight from Sherman, an inexhaustible blogger on arts issues in general and censorship in particular. His informed writing led to the creation of the Arts Integrity Initiative, which promises to focus on artists’ rights and creative freedom, and censorship at the professional, amateur and academic levels. In the few weeks since its unveiling, the initiative has been active in combating an attempt to censor art displayed in the Trumbull, Connecticut public library and investigated the censorship of Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University in North Carolina, among others.

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