NY judge gives 1970s sitcom a Silicon Valley spin

April 2, 2015

Actress Suzanne Somers poses for photographs after her star was unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fa..

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

New York’s federal court has given a 1970s sitcom some Silicon Valley spin. A judge concluded that a “Three’s Company” parody didn’t violate rights to the television hit, despite similarities. The verdict reflects Big Apple legal thinking that ideas are for sharing.

“Three’s Company” gained iconic status with its rollicking cast of roommates – a man and two women – and an irascible landlord, Mr. Roper. No wonder a playwright parodied the perennial top 10 show with a 2012 production called “3C” that essentially copied the characters and situation but explored darker themes like rape, discrimination and insecurity.

The comedy’s copyright holder objected, claiming the play was an illegal knock-off. A judge ruled on Tuesday, though, that it was a fair use of the show, a work that turned “Three’s Company” into “a nightmarish version of itself.”

The decision might have easily gone the other way outside of New York, where federal courts have consistently said narrow copyright protections best serve culture and artistic progress. That stance drew harsh criticism last September from the U.S. appeals court in Chicago. Even a jury in Los Angeles, where courts often agree with New York on copyright, slapped pop stars Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams with a $7.4 million verdict last month despite a lack of much more than stylistic similarity with the supposedly copied Marvin Gaye number.

New York courts tend to avoid complex legal tests and decide against infringement when a derivative work significantly changes the original. In 2013, for example, a judge approved Google’s method of scanning books and putting them online because it used the written words in a new way. Aereo’s creation of tiny antennas to capture TV broadcasts also passed muster as a novel development, though the Supreme Court later disagreed.

Freeing ideas from legal constraint is familiar to Silicon Valley. The enclave surpassed Boston’s Route 128 as America’s technology hub because it allowed workers to share discoveries and expertise at will, according to several studies. Smartphone patent wars and other legal squabbles have undermined that approach, but the likes of electric carmaker Tesla Motors are pushing for a return to sharing.

California’s courts have sometimes stood in the way. On this point, at least, they and the technology community can look to the East Coast for inspiration.

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