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Judge says play’s use of comedy material is fair use

If you are an heir to an estate containing creative material, then protecting your rights to those assets can mean life-long royalty payments or other forms of income. Because laws governing such materials can be complex, administering an estate with creative assets can also be difficult. Sometimes, heirs are involved in legal battles years — or even decades — after the estate is seemingly settled.

One recent lawsuit illustrates this point. The heirs of Abbott and Costello filed a lawsuit earlier in 2015 against a Broadway show. The heirs claimed that the Broadway show, “Hand of God,” infringed upon the copyright of a known Abbott and Costello skit. The skit, “Who’s on First?” is well-known across the country.

The judge in the case ruled that the Broadway show used the work in a manner in keeping with fair use. Specifically, the skit was not performed in full and was not performed in the same manner or vein as originally written. Instead, a small portion of the skit was paraphrased in the play by a single character.

While the Abbott and Costello heirs lost this particular case, they are heirs to a large body of creative work that they must protect. Using estate planning and administration functions to protect your own creative works now helps set a trend of protection that can last through generations. Begin by ensuring that your creative works and associated rights are part of your estate plan. Next, make sure your heirs understand the importance of these works so they can continue to protect them, passing on future rights to their own children and grandchildren.

Source: Playbill, “Hand to God Wins Suit with Abbott and Costello Estate Over Use of Famed Comedy Routine,” Robert Viagas, Dec. 17, 2015