Three’s Company Goes To Court


Friday, February 07, 2014

Anna Chlumsky, Kate Buddeke, Hannah Cabell, and Jake Silbermann in 3C Anna Chlumsky, Kate Buddeke, Hannah Cabell, and Jake Silbermann in 3C (Joan Marcus)

Three’s Company the jaunty sitcom about three roommates and their double-entendre-infested apartment — went off the air in 1984. But a stage play is giving it new attention. David Adjmi’s 3C ran in New York City in 2012, but the TV show’s rights holders filed a cease-and-desist. Now Adjmi has filed a complaint in federal court in the hopes of publishing his play and staging more performances.

Like Three’s Company, 3C is set in the 1970s and is about a good-looking man who ends up sharing an apartment with two good-looking women. But the play is a lot darker than its inspiration. Gone are the canned laughter and California sun, replaced by drug use, homophobia, and self-loathing. The changes weren’t enough for DLT Entertainment, the company that owns the rights to Three’s Company. “We thought there were too many similarities to our show,” DLT president Donald Taffner, Jr., tells Kurt Andersen. Taffner’s father was part of the production team that adapted Three’s Company from the 1970s British sitcom Man About the House. Though the show has long been off the networks, Taffner says it’s profitable in cable syndication. “We still sell it, we still make money from it, and it’s still successful for a lot of broadcasters,” he says.

Kurt notes the differences between the play and the TV show, asking whether the doctrine of fair use shouldn’t allow an artist to make creative use of an existing story. Taffner points to a licensing agreement DLT reached with the actor James Franco, who staged a play inspired by Three’s Company in 2011. “He could have just done it himself,” Taffner says, “but he did it the proper way,” contacting DLT for the rights. “It really comes down to how one should act with regard to intellectual property rights.”

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Donald Taffner, Jr.

Produced by:

Sean Rameswaram

Comments [13]

Scott from New York, NY

There are examples of other playwrights who have navigated similar situations. For example, when a group of drag queens wanted to do a pay about "The Golden Girls", they didn't go to Disney, which owned the rights to that television show. Instead, they created a parody and changed the character's names to Blanchette instead of Blanche, Dorthea instead of Dorothy, Roz instead of Rose, and Sophie instead of Sophia, which exempted them as a parody and they named the play "Thank you for being a friend". This one could have used a similar route, renaming it "Three's A Crowd" with new names for Jack (maybe naming him Jock instead?), Janet (Joanette) and Chisty (Chrissy). The point is creativity could have avoided a lot of headaches for everyone but the lawyers.

Feb. 19 2014 11:16 AM
Jay Robison from Austin, Texas

What the story seems to come down to, to me, is the question of can you copyright a general premise? Based on what I heard, 3C takes the premise of Three's Company and turns it inside out, which the playwright should have every right to do. It uses a different title, different characters, and uses no dialog from the show. If you can copyright a premise, Hollywood is pretty much out of luck--how many times have they recycled the same basic plots?

Feb. 15 2014 01:32 PM

For the curious, here is a copy of the complaint Adjmi's lawyers filed against Mr. Taffner's company. It seems quite clearly an instance of fair use based on how the play is characterized in the brief. Fascinating read:

Feb. 13 2014 06:09 PM
Jeff Zinn from Cape Cod

Good story and the interviewer did a decent job questioning the Three's Company representative, but why wasn't David Adjmi interviewed? Made for a rather lopsided report in my opinion.

Feb. 13 2014 03:15 PM

It's important to allow room for fair use of intellectual property for creative parody and cultural comment, especially to critically reconsider ideas from shows like Three's Company, but it sounds like Adjmi cued too many elements from Three's Company. Subtle speaks more strongly.

Feb. 11 2014 01:29 AM
Roberto from Yokosuka, Japan

Great exchange:

Studio 360: "This play is not simply a recitation of Three’s Company scripts."
DLT: “Have you seen the play?”
Studio 360: "I have.”
DLT: "I disagree with you.
Studio 360: “So you saw the play?”
DLT: [pause] “Uh, I did not. My representatives did."

And out.

NOT having seen the play, I can't comment about its similarities to written "Three's Company" scripts, but I do have quite a bit of intellectual property rights experience in the entertainment arena, and sadly, copyright infringement suits are a weapon for deep-pocketed rights holders. A weapon independent creatives cannot afford to combat.

DLT mentions James Franco "doing the right thing" and pursuing a licensing agreement, but in that context, Franco has the upper hand. He is the powerful one, the famous Hollywood actor. It's in DLT's interest to okay that deal. I have had plenty of experience trying to license content, and if you're unknown, you almost never get a callback.

DLT's case sounds like a loser to me [“We thought there were too many similarities to our show,” DLT president Donald Taffner, Jr., tells Kurt Andersen.], but the legal merits of the case are almost certainly not of interest to DLT (Jr) and his "representatives". The lawsuit is a billy club with which to beat David Adjmi until he cries "Uncle!", and which which to scare off all others hoping to, as James Wilson notes above, stage a production about a "man who pretends to be a eunuch to live in the midst of the harem".

Feb. 10 2014 08:38 AM
Marc Mazzone from Nashville, TN

I would have preferred the interview to raise direct questions about parody and intellectual property. The question Kurt Anderson raised of "where's the harm" was interesting in this regard, but a bit disingenuous. Although I've not seen the play, it seems obvious that the potential harm lies in its satiric attack on the show. I assume Kurt recognized this before he asked, but wanted to manipulate Taffner into acknowledging the play's intention. Taffner deftly sidestepped in an equally disingenuous way because to acknowledge it would be to admit the play makes a point. The result of this fencing match is that the underlying issue of cultural critique is barely perceptible. Add to this David Adjmi's conspicuous absence and you get the uncomfortable feeling that Studio 360 is trying to protect Adjmi from DLT's bullying rather than promoting a larger discussion of the issues that arise from this legal battle. The bigger question of the viability of parody and satire in the age of intellectual property rights remains unaddressed.

Feb. 09 2014 12:18 PM
James Wilson

In terms of "intellectual property" the Three's Company concept is obviously based on a much earlier invention, albeit with a different take, on the man who pretends to be a eunuch to live in the midst of the harem..
The specific invention comes down to character names and place. Beyond that, the owners of this work have no claim against the new playwright.

Feb. 09 2014 11:19 AM
Mr. Furley from 4D

Both parties should be sued for being involved with something so stupid!

Feb. 09 2014 11:15 AM
LMU from minneapolis

When I heard the preview of the segment, and reference to 3s Company on trial, I was thrilled. I am only slightly kidding when I state this: I have always felt the producer's of that show should have been put on trial for the IQ points they robbed from me and my fellow children of the 70s who grew up watching that complete and utter affront to the miracle of life here on Earth. But with out the hundreds of channels of today, along with groundbreaking viewing options, form sopranos, to wire, to breaking bad, what options did we have!?!!??!? Again, only partially kidding: I just shudder at the memory, and how simultaneously pervy and utterly unfunny and wildly lame it was. And what was going on in this country that that was creep-fest was how an absolutely enormous segment of the population was willingly spending an evening? It really was an affront to mankind, and surely we all carry around some shame and inability to make sense of what we did, what we were capable of, which is always the case when entire peoples lose their bearings and do things that they would at other times view as unspeakable. So, trial for three's company. Please, by all means. Reparations, reconciliation efforts, all that. What I was not prepared for was to hear some guy actually claiming ownership. Why is he not living under an alias in some foreign land?

Feb. 08 2014 02:18 PM
David from Studio 360

AMS - You raise an important point that unfortunately we were unable to address in the scope of one interview. Fair use is a legal doctrine rather than a law or a standard; for example, what constitutes fair use for Studio 360 as a noncommercial radio program is quite different from what would constitute fair use for the author of "3C." It will be up to the court to decide if "3C" infringes on DLT's copyright or not. We promise to follow up on the issue as it develops.

Feb. 08 2014 08:41 AM
AMS from Brooklyn USA

Glad Kurt did this piece but his interview with DLT Jr. sidelined the main legal issue: what constitutes fair use?

I saw the play at Rattlestick. Glad I did, but I understand why other reactions were so virulent. Some reasons: The producers either did not or could not convey how 3C related to Three's Company, so many theatergoers expected something (lighter) that they did not get. Successful producers know how to frame expectations. These didn't. I knew Adjmi's work so I knew what was coming.

Another reason was that while the sitcom had a classic line/line/joke rhythm and a 22 minute, three act structure, the play had...something else. The humor was brutal and the plot was sometimes barely there. So many felt trapped in the theater, with no sense of how close they were to the end. For some, this is agonizing. But for me it was like a SoCal NO EXIT. I was into it.

The DLT company should lose the legal case. "Fair use" FTW! DLT's action only makes sense as psychodrama. THREE'S COMPANY, with its vision of how to be gay, how to be female, how to be anything, wounded Adjmi terribly. 3C is his revenge. DLT's legal action to suppress him is their counterstrike. They know, extra-judicially, that any spreading consciousness of 3C will drain the fun out of any 'straight' theatrical version of the sitcom that they say they are developing.

Feb. 07 2014 12:37 AM
brian bauman

I saw the show. It was incredible. The play was not about pirating the BRAND of Three's Company or piggy-backing on the show's success. The play was really about the cruelty in popular culture, and american "entertainment". have you seen the youtube video of the golden girls, or FRIENDS, with the laugh track redacted? it's unnerving and horrific. 3C was that, PLUS one amazing writer's POV about homophobia, class, and misogyny in contemporary american culture. though the play was set in in 70's, it was clear from the start that what Adjmi was commenting on was very contemporary: the wars in the middle east, the problematic aspects of assimilation, the very real hostility towards women, sexual abuse survivors, etc. the play is totally relevant and tough as hell. there was this awful straight couple in front of me squirming through the whole thing. everytime one of the fag jokes got blurted out the woman literally clutched the arms of her chair as if it was going to eject out of the theater. they were so uncomfortable and that's totally the point - but people aren't used to feeling uncomfortable. everyone craved a laugh track that never materialized - instead, the audience performed it, and had to think about the cruelty in it. it made me think of how invisible the transition back to "real life" is from the combat zone for current servicemen and women, and how even further away the stories of victims of war are from the broadcast landscape. the horrors of the world and our existence were pulsing through the actors on stage - i loved every minute of it, even the moments that stalled or imploded. i swear to god if it weren't for your work and that of a very few other special artists, i'd completely give up on theater. you make it totally relevant and actually cool and integrous.

Feb. 06 2014 09:18 PM

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