Here’s something you don’t see every day: a copyright case in which fair use prevails. David Adjmi produced a play entitled 3C, a parody-take on the classic sitcom Three’s Company, the copyright of which is held by DLT Entertainment. After 2 months of off-Broadway production and just before Adjmi wanted to translate the play for literary release, DLT fired off a cease and desist letter. Rather than retreating, Adjmi, with the support of the Dramatists Guild of America, went to court to get his work affirmed as non-infringing, arguing that it is both parody and transformative. U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska ruled in agreement in a whopper of a ruling (you can read the full ruling here or embedded below). Her comments within the ruling demonstrate a textbook understanding of both copyright and fair use.
She writes that the body of copyright law “is designed to foster creativity. It does so by, in effect, managing 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. Here, ‘further protection against parody does little to promote creativity, but it places substantial inhibition upon the creativity of authors adept at using parody.’ ”
In addition to finding that 3C is clearly a transformative work, as opposed to anything resembling blatant copying, this ruling reads like a best-case scenario for those of us that believe all kinds of transformative works building off of existing works are protected, useful, creative and necessary. Adjmi had a message to send and, while the original Three’s Company might serve as the starting line for his creative vehicle, the finish line is somewhere far different than that of the original sitcom. Nobody attending the play lacked the understanding that this was something new, something different from the original show, the original show’s message, or that the play was anything other than social commentary using a trope-ladened show from the 70’s.
According to Adjmi, his 3C was a comment 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.”
That kind of commentary is important and, even if you disagree with the message, or think that platforming the commentary on a show as silly as Three’s Company is misguided, those aren’t questions of copyright law. Once the work becomes parody, never mind transformative, there ends the copyright argument. Judge Preska delved into the four-factor analysis of the claim, finding that DLT’s claim of direct copying of characters, settings and themes to be baseless.
“Despite the many similarities between the two, 3C is clearly a transformative use of Three’s Company,” she writes. “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 might not like the transformation, but it is a transformation nonetheless.”
More likely, the more correct assertion would be that DLT might really like money, but they can’t get any out of Adjmi just because some elements of Three’s Company appear in his parody and transformative play.