Dear Rich: I want to create a theater piece inspired by the real life characters featured in the Channel Four documentary “Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder.” Do I need the permission of the real people involved?
We understand your fascination with hoarders. We had a good friend who was a hoarder. He used to always wear black t-shirts and one day we stumbled on some boxes in a back room each with the year marked on it. He had saved every black t-shirt he’d worn for the past 25 years, all neatly folded and in boxes. Wow!
Right, you had a question. Generally, novelists and dramatists can get away with fictionalizing real life people and events without permission, and those who object usually have a hard time winning claims. (This article explains some of the rules and exceptions, and we explored similar issues in this blog post.) In your case, we think extra care is required because you are basing the play on a copyrighted work in turn, based on real people. The more likely that a viewer of your play finds similarities between the stories or characters from the show — similar names, dialogue, appearance, etc. — the more likely the show’s producers (or the persons appearing in the show) may object. We’re not saying you can’t succeed on a First Amendment basis, but you will be best served to make the characters distinctly distinguishable from the folks on TV. Of course, this is dependent as well on the producer or show participants learning of your play.