Father Ted: Tribute or rip-off?

Is Fringe show infringing trademarks?

An unauthorised Father Ted ‘tribute’ evening heading for the Edinburgh Fringe could land itself in legal trouble for infringing the sitcom’s trademark.

Creators Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan have reacted with surprise and dismay at Father Ted: The Dinner Show in which actors playing Fathers Ted Crilly, Dougal McGuire, Jack Hackett and their housekeeper Mrs Doyle act out sketches to diners in a restaurant.

Sketches in the £39-a-head show will include a Riverdance class led by Mrs Doyle and her version of the Titanic title track, My Heart Will . . . Ah Go On! More familiar to fans will be a version of the Fathers' Eurovision single My Lovely Horse, a Craggy Island disco boasting just one record, a fixed raffle and a priest cabaret, though not, perhaps, a lesson in exorcism from Dougal.

But the sitcom’s writers said the show – which will be staged at the Hilton Edinburgh Grosvenor Hotel in August – is a complete surprise to them.

‘It’s the first I’ve heard of this’ said Mathews. Linehan added: ‘The worst aspect of these things is usually the generic Irish accent that passes as an “impression” of Dougal.’

Paul Cohen, group commercial director of Hat Trick Productions, which made three series of Father Ted for Channel 4, confirmed ‘this has not been authorised by Hat Trick. Today is the first time we’ve become aware of it and we’re looking into it.’

The company behind the dinner shows, Laughlines, also tour Fawlty Towers-themed productions and are involved in a ‘Battle Of The Basils’ feud with another company offering similar shows.

Company director Michael Wilson-Green, who plays Ted and Basil Fawlty, defended the production, saying: ‘I contemplated contacting Graham and Arthur, but we’re only emulating the characters. We change the sketches and it’s all improvised, we’ve never scripted anything.’

‘There are a lot of people doing tributes out there. For the tribute Fawlty Towers, we never asked John Cleese’s permission but we did approach the people who had the scripts [David Wilkinson Associates] and they said as long as we don’t copy the scripts, we should be fine.’

Nevertheless, Laughlines may be guilty of trademark infringement, passing off and breach of copyright.

The name ‘Father Ted’ was registered as a trademark by Hat Trick in 1999 covering ‘entertainment services relating to television; television programmes’.

‘Trademark can be infringed if you’re copying the exact trademark, which they’re doing here, and it’s services similar to those covered. And here I would say that they are similar’ explains Colin Hulme, intellectual property partner at Scottish law firm Burness LLP. ‘Leaving everything else aside, I think that’s trademark infringement.’

Despite a disclaimer on Laughlines website that, ‘The Laughlines Father Ted Dinner Show is a tribute act and does not copy any of the scripted writing created by Graham Linehan & Arthur Matthews [sic] / Hat Trick Productions. The peformers [sic] are impersonators only’, Hulme believes they can also be accused of passing off.

‘If you’re producing a product or services and there is an association that would confuse a reasonable consumer, put simply, you are living off someone else’s reputation. And I think there would be a concern here that they are claiming an association with Father Ted or a connection, of milking [Mathews and Linehan’s] reputation.

Furthermore, by using Neil Hannon’s theme tune for the sitcom in their promotional video, Laughlines may be breaching copyright if they haven’t sought permission or paid royalties.

Threats of legal action have previously flown between Laughlines and rival group Interactive Theatre Australia, which also produces a Fawlty Towers-themed dinner show that has become a Fringe regular. In a bitter dispute, both companies have accused the other of underhand tactics in promoting their show at the expense of the other.

Here is a promotional clip from Laughlines Father Ted show:

– Jay Richardson

Published: 9 Jun 2011

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