Dear Rich: Can I Theatricize ‘Hoarders’?

From Dear Rich: Nolo’s Intellectual Property Blog

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.

About Rich Stim

Attorney Richard Stim specializes in small business, copyright, patents, and trademark issues at Nolo. He practices law in San Francisco and has represented photographers, software developers, craftspeople, publishers, musicians and toy designers. He is the author of many books, including Music Law: How to Run Your Band’s Business; Patent, Copyright & Trademark: An Intellectual Property Desk Reference; and Profit From Your Idea. Stim regularly answers readers’ intellectual property questions at Dear Rich: Nolo’s Patent, Copyright & Trademark Blog. Rich is also an author on Intellectual Property Law Firms. Stim also produces audiobooks, such as Nolo’s Crash Course in Small Business Basics, and performs and records with two bands, MX-80 and angel corpus christi. You can also find Rich on Google Plus.