The owners of iconic British comedy show “Only Fools and Horses” have won a copyright battle against an “Only Fools”-themed dining show.
“Only Fools The (cushty) Dining Experience” is billed as an “interactive dining show” in which diners are subsumed into the world of the long-running TV series, which aired on BBC 1 between 1981 and 1991, with actors dressed as the characters delivering a part-scripted, part-improvized performance.
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In a judgment handed down today, Deputy High Court Judge John Kimbell found in favor of Shazam Productions, a production company owned by the heirs of John Sullivan, creator of “Only Fool and Horses.”
Sullivan died in 2011 but his wife Sharon and children James, Dan and Amy, continue to run Shazam Productions as a vehicle for exploiting the “Only Fools and Horses” IP. Among the projects they have granted a license to are board games, books and a musical co-written by James Sullivan and comedian Paul Whitehouse.
In a lengthy and detailed judgment, Justice Kimbell set out that the scripts for “Only Fools and Horses” constituted a dramatic work while the character of Del Boy – played by David Jason in the series – was a literary work capable of protection under E.U. copyright law. He found that actors in the dining show “used the appearance, mannerisms, voices and catchphrases of Del Boy, Rodney, Uncle Albert, Cassandra, Boycie, and Marlene as they appeared in the broadcast version.”
In particular, he accepted that there was “a real likelihood of diversion of trade” from the authorized musical to the dining show, writing in his judgment: “Both had the same principal characters, with their full backstories and distinctive catchphrases, albeit the shows had different settings and formats. I consider that most members of the public, knowing that the TV series had long since ended, would be equally likely to consider that both were authorised spin offs.”
He also found that a script from the dining show had borrowed significantly from the original series.
In their defence, the creators behind the dining show, who also run a similar “Fawlty Towers” themed experience, attempted to argue their version was a parody or pastiche, but Justice Kimbell was not persuaded.
“Works of parody can only facilitate dialogue or give rise to artistic confrontation if they are in some sense themselves constitute an expression of opinion expressed as humour or mockery,” he wrote in his judgment. “I accept [Shazam’s] submission that mere imitation (of a work of comedy) is not enough to constitute parody.”
In a statement, James Sullivan said: “Back in 2019 we issued legal proceedings against a business putting on an unlicensed ‘Only Fools’ dining show. We are so very pleased with the court ruling today which makes it clear that copyright does actually mean something. This case was about protecting John Sullivan’s legacy and the integrity of his work.”
“Only Fools and Horses did not just magically appear out of thin air overnight. It took my dad decades of personal experience, skill and hard graft to create and develop an imaginary world rich in memorable characters, dialogue, jokes, plots and history. Growing up I saw first-hand how hard he fought to make ‘Only Fools’ work, and we are immensely proud and protective of the joy it brought, and still brings, to so many people.”
“The court held today that the other side’s show is unlawful and constitutes copyright infringement and passing-off. This legal action has taken a long time and has not for one moment been pleasant for me or my family. That said, some things are worth fighting for, and this will always be one of them.”
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