Reefer Madness Madness

Two years ago I started writing a new show, a wild satire called A Reefer Madness Christmas. It didn't even occur to me that the title would be a problem, since the original 1936 film Reefer Madness is already in the public domain, due to some long-ago screw up with its copyright. Plus, titles can't be copyrighted.

Then a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a lawyer for the two guys who wrote the musical adaptation of the Reefer Madness movie, Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney. Apparently, these two guys have trademarked the phrase, "reefer madness." Even though it's not their intellectual property, even though they took the title from another work, and even though the phrase is a common one (do a search of the phrase on Amazon or Google), they now own it. I was told in no uncertain terms that if I used my title, they would sue me. Coincidentally, though their show first opened in 1999, the registration certificate said the phrase wasn't officially registered in their name until Dec. 27, 2022.

I honestly couldn't believe any of this could be true, so I insisted that the lawyer prove it. But it's true; I saw the certificate and they really own this phrase that isn't really theirs to begin with. Yet one more reason why we have to seriously rethink copyright and trademark in this digital age.

And let's be clear -- my show uses none of the characters or plot from the original film or its musical adaptation, and while the original is set in 1936, my story is set in 1959. My show is more like a smartass retort to Reefer Madness, rather than any kind of sequel.

Still, I grudgingly agreed not to use my title, and I decided to change it instead to A Reefer Magic Christmas, and I updated all the graphics and our website. But nope, the lawyer told me they would also sue me if I used that title. He told me not only could I not use the phrase, "reefer madness," nor either of the two words individually, but I also could not use "similar" words, an intentionally nebulous prohibition, I think. He told me I could make a list of possible titles to submit to Murphy and Studney, and then they would decide which one(s) they'd allow me to use.

Ummmm... No.

I'll come up with another title for my show without their input, thanks anyway. It sucks that I have to do this, but it's no catastrophe.

And yet there is something dreadfully wrong with our intellectual property laws that these two guys can own and restrict someone else's intellectual property, which was in the public domain to begin with.

But that's not the only issue here. These two writers have been harassing us for years. We produced their Reefer Madness in the early 2000s, then years later, they publicly claimed that we hadn't paid them for the rights. Which is a lie. Why would they give us their show for free? It's nonsense.

Then when we produced Heathers, which Murphy co-wrote, he insisted that Samuel French, who licenses the show, force me to shut down this blog. I was writing about the show as we worked on it, like I always do, and though I gushed about the strength of the material, I was very critical at times of the clueless and clumsy off Broadway production. As we worked on the show, we discovered how brilliant and well-constructed that material really is, and yet the off Broadway director had treated the show like it was Nunsense. And I said so. And Murphy tried to stop me from saying so, on my own blog. Ummm... No.

This is the third time these guys have come after us. It's starting to feel like some creepy vendetta. But all is well. After some conversation with my funnier friends, we came up with a strong replacement title -- Jesus and Johnny Appleweed's Holy Rollin' Family Christmas. Honestly, this is probably a better title anyway.

I'm just waiting to get the letter from them telling me they've trademarked Jesus and Christmas... and my character Johnny Appleweed...

Welcome to my world.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, Go Greased Lighting!click here.