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Few moments in a playwright’s life can compare to the anticipation, thrill, and excitement of opening night. Many are so fraught with nerves they can’t even watch. But on the opening night of his new play, “3C,” playwright David Adjmi found himself battling not only nervous jitters, but a squadron of lawyers attempting to shut down production of the play.
On what should have been a night of celebration for artistic achievement, instead lawyers from Kenyon & Kenyon served Adjmi with a cease-and-desist letter on behalf of DLT Entertainment, the corporate owner of the classic sitcom “Three’s Company.” Adjmi’s play is a parody of the television series specifically and the larger social and political culture of the time in which it was written, and features a male roommate who pretends to be gay in order to live with two female roommates, the central, recognizable trope of the John Ritter/Suzanne Somers/Joyce DeWitt vehicle. Without appropriate financial means to battle the legal team of a well-resourced production company, Adjmi agreed to close down the production after its initial Off-Broadway run, potentially costing himself tens of thousands of dollars in future royalties.
While the litigious nature of a long-dead sitcom sounds surprising, it can likely be attributed not only to the fact that “Three’s Company” continues to earn money in syndication, but also to the rumors that DLT Entertainment is preparing its own ‘Three’s Company” stage play, to capitalize over recent TV-to-Broadway successes like “The Addams Family” and the forthcoming “Green Acres.” Regardless of the motivations, however, the legal argument is tenuous at best. “3C” seems to fit squarely within the definition of parody or satire; as such, it should be considered fair use, and therefore cannot be considered copyright infringement. Satires like the “Forbidden Broadway” series have existed in theatres for decades by mocking popular musical theatre songs under the parody/fair use exception. ”3C” not only meets this definition of parody, it should have an entirely separate fair use defense as a piece of literary criticism. Ultimately, there is no colorable argument that 3C functions as a market replacement for a “Three’s Company” stage play. Rather, it comments on the original and criticizes the genre and the time period in the precise manner that fair use was designed to protect.
Without a full legal team, however, Adjmi has no hope of fighting DLT Entertainment’s dubious legal argument. Fortunately, his playwright peers have come to his defense. In addition to penning an open letter asserting Adjmi’s fair use rights, signed by some of the theatre industry’s biggest names, the collection of playwrights comprising the Dramatists’ Guild have also offered Adjmi pro bono legal defense through the Dramatists’ Guild Legal Defense Fund.
Perhaps most ironically, “3C,” on its own, was not particularly well-reviewed. Without such aggressive legal action, it is very likely that the piece would have closed quietly and faded into relative obscurity, clearing the way for DLT to launch their own, un-ironic piece. Instead, their attempts to quash the piece to avoid the negative attention it might cast on the sitcom has had the opposite effect–galvanizing the entire industry in support of the play and causing a PR nightmare for the heretofore unknown production company.
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