How every Fringe parody show is in a legal limbo | A new copyright law has yet to be tested, writes Lewis Dunn © Steve Ullathorne

How every Fringe parody show is in a legal limbo

A new copyright law has yet to be tested, writes Lewis Dunn

If you love something, truly and completely, you will make fun of it. Whether it’s friends, family, partners or even dogs, we tease the things we love. It makes sense then that when it comes to parody, the first to be targeted for mockery aren’t the those that perhaps deserve a scathing critique, but the books, films and even people we care about most. 

A quick look at the Fringe guide shows how true this is, from Harry Potter (Spontaneous Potter, Pottervision and Voldemort and the Teenage Hogwarts Musical Parody) to Game of Thrones (Thrones! A Musical Parody), the Fringe is ripe with beloved franchises "getting theirs" at the hands of comics.

The same is true of the show we do: Any Suggestions, Doctor? The Improvised Doctor Who Parody. Our show started out of a desire to join in with the fun of loving Doctor Who, to point out its flaws and tropes absolutely, but to do so with the cheeky wink of a mate down the pub. We all know it’s just a bit of banter, something to take in good humour.

Doctor Who Any Suggestions

However, parody comes with a strange history. Despite the seemingly older-than-time nature of the form, up until 2014 parody technically wasn’t legal in the UK. 

That’s not to say it had never been done before then: famously French & Saunders had an endless parade of movie parodies to name just one example I saw growing up. The only reason that those parodies went to broadcast was quite simply nobody thought they’d get sued. 

In October 2014 the UK law aligned with EU law to make parody a legally defensible position, but with perhaps the cruellest catch anyone could ever put on a law about comedy.

In order for our show to be legal, and this is entirely true, it has to be funny. If our show isn’t deemed to be funny enough we can be sued by the BBC. If you’ve ever felt the pressure because an industry figure was in, imagine our terror. 

Even worse, the person we would have to entertain is not a crowd of willing onlookers, but a single judge forced to watch the show in a courtroom (and while a scathing review might end a career, this one would come with a hefty fine on top). Every night we risk being banged up for real if our show fails to entertain. We truly are at the forefront of edgy comedy… where we mostly make jokes about Daleks called Elaine and Brian.

It’s a fascinating prospect, not least because the way the law is worded puts some parodies in a tricky position. For example, this year is the first time we’ve actually put the words Doctor Who in our show title, mostly to make it clear what it is we do, but also because a part of the law is that we cannot compete with the official product. A fair enough clause you might think, but let me tell you the utterly bizarre story of The Room: The Musical, a musical parody of Tommy Wiseau’s… er… ‘beloved’ film that inspired the movie The Disaster Artist. 

The show was written by a very good friend of mine (Ed Greenwood) and the decision to take it to various fringe festivals was settled after a spectacular trial run at the University of York. 

The show was hilarious, sending up every scene from the movie with some wonderfully catchy and entirely bad taste tunes. All was well, until the show received a legal threat from Tommy Wiseau. Now in all fairness the show was a parody, from top to bottom, but the catch lay in a very simple mistake. They had called the show The Room: The Musical. 

Because of the reputation of the film and the way that Wiseau had been marketing it for years, the idea that he had played a part in a musical piss-take of it was entirely plausible. Despite the fact the show was a parody, it technically competed with the original product. That is to say: the reputation of The Room and its creator are so risible that a show making fun of them is entirely plausibly an official product.

In the end, the rights were purchased from roughly the same cost as Fringe registration, absurdly making the show an official musical of The Room (the rights have since expired though so if you fancy interacting with the man yourself feel free to have a go). To say it covered this cost would be an understatement.

As fun as this story is, it leaves open a curious loose end – the truth is that the rights were purchased to avoid a lengthy legal case that The Room: The Musical might well have won if they changed their name. 

The precedent for parody law in the UK is entirely unset, the legislation has been passed but never actually tested. Had Wiseau followed through on his threat, The Room: The Musical would have in fact been the first case of parody in the UK and set the benchmark for all that followed. 

Currently, the status of parody remains in limbo and all of us at the Fringe hawking our wares under other’s names share both a comfort and terror in this fact.

 A sword of Damocles hangs over parody shows, with nobody brave enough to cut the thread and see what happens. We could all be fine, we could all be shut down overnight, but at least we’ll go down doing what we love most – making fun of something and pretending it’s all fine.

Any Suggestions, Doctor? The Improvised Doctor Who Parody will be at the Pleasance Dome at 7pm during the Edinburgh Fringe. 

Published: 24 Jul 2019

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