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Adjmi v. DLT Entertainment LTD.

District court grants declaratory judgment to playwright, holding that play’s dark and “nightmarish” theatrical take on iconic ’70s sitcom Three’s Company was “highly transformative” parody protected by fair use doctrine.

Plaintiff David Adjmi sought a declaration that his play 3C did not infringe defendant DLT’s copyright in the popular ’70s sitcom Three’s Company on fair use grounds. 3C had enjoyed an off-Broadway run in New York’s West Village, and Adjmi wanted to publish and potentially license 3C for future productions.

As an initial matter, the district court declined to convert Adjmi’s motion for judgment on the pleadings into a motion for summary judgment, because the 3C script and Three’s Company episodes were incorporated by reference in the complaint. The court elected to review these “raw materials” in deciding the motion, noting that courts in the Second Circuit have resolved motions to dismiss on fair use grounds by comparing the original work to an alleged parody.

According to the court, Three’s Company, which aired from 1977 to 1984, “[W]as considered daring for its time, in that it featured three single, opposite-sex adults platonically sharing an apartment in the late 1970s.” The series, like its iconic opening montage set to “Come and Knock on My Door,” was generally “happy-go-lucky” and “carefree,” with a “harmless and innuendo-laden tone” and pervasive laugh track. In contrast, the court observed, 3C “[A]ssumes a heavy tone from the outset” with disjointed, often vulgar dialogue “rapidly shifting in tone and topic.” The parties did not dispute that 3C copied “the plot premise, characters, sets, and certain scenes from Three’s Company.” The question was whether 3C was a noninfringing fair use parody of the ’70s sitcom.

In practical terms, the court’s fair use analysis started and ended with the first factor: the purpose and character of the use. The court determined that 3C deconstructed rather than repeated Three’s Company, transforming the sitcom’s elements and turning it into “a nightmarish version of itself.” For example, although Three’s Company was considered groundbreaking in addressing homosexuality, “3C criticizes the [sitcom’s] happy-go-lucky treatment of that issue.”

The court acknowledged that the second factor—the nature of the copyrighted work—“weighed somewhat against” fair use, but noted that the factor tends to be less influential in analyses involving parodies. Likewise, the court noted that the third factor—the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole—is given less weight in parody cases. While 3C copies extensively from Three’s Company, parodies are “entitled to more extensive use of the original work” than normally allowed under copyright law, since parodies must recognizably allude to an original work in order to parody that work. Finally, the court determined that the fourth fair use factor—the effect on the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work—weighed in favor of fair use, because 3C was not a potential market substitution for Three’s Company.

The court concluded that 3C is a “highly transformative parody” of Three’s Company, marking a “drastic departure from the original” and posing minimal risk to the market for Three’s Company. After determining that 3C was protected by the fair use doctrine, the court awarded a declaratory judgment in plaintiff’s favor.