The production company behind the sitcom “Only Fools and Horses” claim that the operators of an ‘interactive theatrical dining experience’ have infringed its copyright. John Sullivan, the late writer of the sitcom, founded Shazam Productions to exploit his works and intellectual property rights in his projects, including the popular show that originally broadcasted on BBC from 1981 to 1991. The television production company is now pursuing action in the High Court, the outcome of which could have meaningful implications on tribute works (works of parody or pastiche) that are based on copyrighted material.

“Only Fools: The (Cushty) Dining Experience” has been, since September 2018, providing an immersive show that transports the audience to The Nags Head (the local boozer for the fictional Trotter family) in a night of “wheeling, dealing and eating”, complemented by actors bringing to life characters from the series and interacting with the audience.

Shazam’s legal representatives contend that the experience infringes copyright in the sitcom’s scripts and in the principal characters featured in the sitcom, and that the experience’s marketing material tricks audiences into believing that the experience was an officially endorsed product (‘passing off’). Shazam insists that these claims are strengthened by the influence the sitcom had on British culture, contributing several words and phrases to the English language.

The operators of the experience dispute whether characters from the sitcom can be protected by copyright. Irrespective of this alleged protection, the operators rely on the defence of fair dealing and the fact that the experience uses common phrases rather than copying any script. In response to passing off claims, the operators of the experience argue that the marketing and presentation of the experience are sufficiently different to the sitcom making it clear to the public that the experience is not associated in the course of business with the sitcom.

At the High Court hearing, the court will consider whether the scripts are “literary works” or “dramatic works”, with the former offering a higher level of protection. The court will also have to consider whether tribute works need to be noticeably different from the original material. The matter is likely to provide wanted clarification on the law of copyright.