“What happens when I get angry about my sheet music being traded for free?”
The Copyright Advocacy Committee was founded in 2010 after Dramatists Guild member Georgia Stitt brought sheet music piracy to the Dramatists Guild’s attention with a community-wide email entitled “What happens when I get angry about my sheet music being traded for free.” What many had been aware of as a growing problem was suddenly given a community-wide platform. Since then, the committee has produced numerous resources to advocate on the behalf of writers and their copyright. A selection of the committee’s resources and past events can be found on this page.
Copyright is the law of the land passed by Congress and overseen by the Copyright Office. The law exists so writers can profit from their work, enabling them to keep creating new work that will eventually belong to everyone. The Copyright Law thus recognizes that writing is valuable WORK and contributes to the artistic legacy of our country. Copyright Law makes it illegal to use, without permission, the original work of an author for his/her/their lifetime plus 70 years.
Copyright is to writers what patents are to inventors. Copyright is intellectual property. If you have written it, it is your property exactly as if you built a car; if anybody stole it, you would call the police. If they wanted to borrow it and paint it, they’d have to call you first and ask or else you would call the police when you heard they painted it a bright red. Writing is property created and owned by the author and protected by the author’s copyright.
Everybody who writes or records original material has a copyright in their writing, whether it’s a play, libretto, lyric, or musical composition. Owning the copyright is what gives the author the ability to negotiate fair contracts for the use of their work, and everybody who licenses and performs a show has to abide by those contracts. You do not have to register your copyright in order to retain your rights, but it is better if you do (check out the Copyright Office for why and how). You can also put a copyright notice on the front page of your work, with your name, the year you wrote the piece and the copyright mark. It is not legally required for you to do that anymore, but it puts the world on notice that you have claimed ownership in the work, so nobody can say they didn’t know they were stealing.
Authors need to be able to profit from their work in order to eat, feed their children, and continue to write. This is why we at the Dramatists Guild have fought to protect your copyrights for a hundred years. We did this for ourselves, as well as for the writers who come after us, one of whom may be you. We are all in this together.
If you want to write a show and live off of it, you’ll need your copyright in order to be able to negotiate a fair contract. Otherwise, the producers will just give you a flat fee and then take all the money the show makes from then on, as was often the case before the Guild was established. The flat fee arrangement is how they still pay you in Hollywood, where the producer owns the work. This is called “work for hire.” Whoever owns the material makes the money.
In the theatre, you are nobody’s employee, so you own the material you write. That means instead of getting a $10,000 flat fee for your play, you could make $10,000 a week for the rest of your life, if you’re lucky because the world loves your show.
Most writers license their shows through publishers like DPS, Samuel French, MTI, and other such companies. Those publishers sign agreements with writers that designate the publisher as the licensing agent for the show and require them to protect the writers’ copyright. So, if you license a show from one of these agents, you will sign a contract in which you agree not to change the words, rearrange scenes, merge characters, eliminate songs, or change IN ANY WAY the show you have licensed, unless you have gotten permission from the author. And even if you are not the one who signed the contract, you are still bound by its terms. The Guild made “#dontchangethewords” stickers reminding everybody of this fact. So please put them up in the halls at school, or backstage, in case anyone forgets.
If you need to make a change in the show for some reason, like eliminating the swear words, you can contact the agent or the author and ask permission. But if you make the change without getting permission, the agent or the author can CLOSE DOWN THE SHOW. Read that again. If you violate the licensing agreement, the show can be shut down. And regardless of the contract, if you infringe a copyright, you can be sued for “damages” and that means money. The DG has reps all over the country now, checking in on productions in their communities. So do the publishers. And the internet has made it easier than ever to find such violations. Writers don’t like closing shows, but we do it, and it happens fast, like before you finish the run of the show. Like opening night, in some cases.
In April of 2014, the Copyright Advocacy Committee held its first Anti-Piracy Blast to raise awareness of digital sheet music piracy. During the event, both established and up-and-coming musical theatre writers contacted users on sites that facilitate the illegal sharing and trading of sheet music to urge them to stop engaging in the practice.
Under the Copyright Act, authors have the right to keep their work confidential during the various stages of completion. In order to prevent potential misuse of audition and rehearsal materials, we have developed two Anti-Piracy Agreements for authors, producers, or other theater professionals to distribute. Please click the links below to download and print the agreements for your own use.
Click the links below for more information on how to combat piracy in the world of theater.
In response to persistent and troubling reports of copyright infringement within high school and college theater departments, the Dramatists Guild launched a new initiative called #DontChangeTheWords to help inform students, educators, and the public in general about copyright and how it protects artists’ rights.
As part of the initiative, the Guild’s website includes information about copyright law and how it works in commercial, not-for-profit, and educational theater. Topics covered include what is and isn’t permissible when a play or musical is performed (whether onstage or in a classroom); how to request a script change; what are the ramifications to writers when their work is stolen or illegally altered; and how to anonymously report copyright infringement.
In addition to the updated website, the Guild’s Education Committee, co-chaired by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights Marsha Norman and David Lindsay-Abaire, has spent the last few months going to theater festivals and classrooms around the country, answering questions about copyright, distributing #DontChangeTheWords promotional materials, and informing students and educators about how they can best help protect and respect artists’ work. Lindsay-Abaire has written a short play on the subject, Can I Change the Words or Music, which is available through the Dramatists Guild and Dramatists Play Service. "We are very happy to lend our support (as well as our trademarked cover design for the publication of David's short play) to this very important initiative of the Dramatists Guild," says Peter Hagan, President of Dramatists Play Service. "Since 1936, when the Guild was a co-founder of DPS, we have worked to protect the rights of playwrights and to educate our buyers in both the professional and nonprofessional markets about the importance of respecting the work which our playwrights own. The Guild's work in this area is more essential now than ever before."
Lindsay-Abaire writes, “We at the Guild have always been indebted to the invaluable contributions of the educators and drama teachers who work tirelessly to instill the love of theater and respect for artists in their students. So it comes as no surprise that the Education and Copyright Advocacy Committees’ #DontChangeTheWords initiative has been met with such overwhelming support from our fellow teachers and teaching artists on the frontlines, all eager to help us get the word out. Almost every day the Guild hears about productions going up with unauthorized changes being made to our scripts and scores. Scenes are edited, dialog is rewritten, lyrics are tweaked, songs are rearranged, and characters are cut or added, all of it without the authors’ permission. While some of these infringements are knowing and willful, just as many are a result of not understanding the rules. And though the violations happen in all corners of the theater world, professional as well as amateur, as teachers we feel we’re in a unique position to address some of these issues early on, and to help better create a community of theater-loving students and fellow-educators who fully understand and respect the rights of theater artists.”
The Dramatists Guild has been working with the Educational Theatre Association, a membership organization with over 135,000 theatre educators and students, to open the lines of communication between writers and educators. EdTA is also home of the International Thespian Society. EdTA Executive Director Julie Cohen Theobald has been at the center of these discussions. "We have heard from teachers around the country about the restrictions they face when staging work about challenging issues which provide students meaningful educational experiences," she says. "Educators care passionately about the shows they produce, and the new #DontChangeTheWords hotline can be used to reach out to dramatists and their publishers to discuss changes and obtain approval.”
As a part of its effort to support dramatists and their allies in the fight, the Guild has created a telephone hotline and email address, where anyone can anonymously report instances of copyright infringement – the Guild will reach out to writers, licensors, and publishers of theatrical works to follow up on the reports.
To anonymously report copyright infringement, or if you don’t know where to go to request a script change, you can call the #DontChangeTheWords hotline at 1-855-71-WORDS, to leave a report via voicemail. If you send a text to that same number, you will receive a link to fill out a report online that will be shared with the Guild’s Business Affairs department. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org to report infringement in your area.
U.S. Copyright Law recognizes that writing is valuable work that contributes to the artistic legacy of our country. Writing is also intellectual property, created and owned by the author and protected by the author’s copyright. Authors need to be able to profit from their work in order to eat, feed their children, and continue to write. This is why the Dramatists Guild has fought to protect copyright for 100 years. The Guild hopes that the #DontChangeTheWords initiative will remind everyone that the work you’ve licensed should be performed as written, unless you get explicit permission from the author.
- We created an adorable PSA with puppets and fancy writers called “Someone Wrote That Song” featuring music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Craig Carnelia.
- “Can I Change The Words” Pamphlet (a very short play by David Lindsay-Abaire.)
- Audition and Rehearsal Forms to have performers sign saying that they will not distribute the materials beyond the audition / rehearsal room.
- The Music Publishers Association has an incredible FAQ
- Sam French’s “Owning Their Words” is an evolving document chronicling the ways in which writers and publishers are advocating for copyright protection: http://owningtheirwords.com
It’s surprisingly easy! The US Copyright Office has an easy online registration process where you can register up to ten unpublished works at a time. Additionally, the website is chock full of comprehensive info about copyright.
Good news! Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device - in other words: if you created the document on your computer, it is already protected. Most writers don’t register a copyright for their work until it is being published. The US Copyright FAQ is a great resource for more detailed questions.
The WGA Script Registry is costing writers’ money and is acting as a detriment, not an asset, to writers. As an entertainment litigator who is regularly asked to handle copyright infringement lawsuits against motion picture studios, one of the biggest problems I face is with writers registering their work with the WGA Script Registry instead of the U.S. Copyright Office. By doing so, these writers are not only costing themselves tens of thousands of dollars in potential recovery but, in many cases they are guaranteeing they won’t recover any money at all.
The reason for this is that under U.S. copyright law, if a writer suing for copyright infringement wants to recover their attorney’s fees and/or statutory damages in the lawsuit, then the writer must have registered the work with the Copyright Office before the infringement began. But the law considers the infringement to have begun when the infringing script is written. So, usually by the time the writer hears about the infringing product, it is too late. The writer may register with the Copyright Office at that time, and can still file a lawsuit to stop the infringement, but they will be barred from recovering his attorney’s fees and/or receiving statutory damages.
Let me give you a hypothetical that explains the real world implications of the writer’s failure to register with the Copyright Office, especially for new and unestablished writers.
A writer signs an option agreement with a production company to purchase his screenplay. The agreement says that the purchase price will be WGA minimum for a low-budget feature (currently approxi-mately $35,000). The option expires without being exercised. A couple of years go by and the writer sees that the production company has put out a movie which is the same as thier screenplay, but did not pay them and did not acquire the rights to his screenplay. The movie is released, but is a box office bomb and does not earn a proift. The writer now wants to bring a lawsuit, but has only registered their screenplay with the WGA and not the Copyright Office.
The problem the writer will have is that, because the script was not registered with the Copyright Office, in any lawsuit the Writer can only recover 1) the actual damages caused by the infringement and 2) any profits earned by the infringer (17 U.S.C. §504(a)(1)). Because the movie did not earn any profits, that means the writer can only recover their actual damages. In a case like this, the writer’s actual damages would be the $35,000 low budget minimum they would have received had the studio exercised the option. And because the writer was not registered with the Copyright Office before the infringement, they could not recover their attorney’s fees in any lawsuit.
As you can imagine, suing a studio for copyright infringement would cost much more than $35,000 in attorney’s fees (taking a case to trial can cost more than $100,000). And for those attorneys (like myself) who will represent writers on a contingency fee basis, there is simply not enough money at stake to justify taking the case on a contingency because the attorney’s fees would end up much higher than the possible recovery. The end result is that no lawsuit is ever filed, the production company gets away with stealing the script, and the writer gets nothing. Even worse, the writer can’t sell his script to someone else because the movie has already been made.
Now, imagine the same scenario, except that this time the writer registered with the Copyright Office, not the WGA Registry. In that case, the writer is not limited to just get-ting $35,000; they can ask the jury to award up to $150,000 in statutory damages for willful infringement of his copyright (17 U.S.C. §504(c)(2)). Also, should they prevail, the writer can recover their attorney’s fees at the end of the trial (17 U.S.C. §505). This makes it much more likely that an attorney will represent the writer, because the attorney knows there is a much better possible outcome. In fact, in these scenarios, it is much more likely that the studio will settle the case early on, because it knows if it delays it will end up paying its own attorney plus the writer’s attorney fees which in a case like this can mean much more than the writer would accept in settlement at the outset.
So the net result of a registration with the Copyright Office is 1) that it’s much more likely that the writer will find an attorney to represent them, 2) the case will settle early on for a higher amount than if there was no registration, and 3) if the case goes to trial, the writer stands to win up to $150,000, not just $35,000, plus his attorney’s fees. Even in cases where the actual damages are significant enough for an attorney to take the case on a contingency without a prior registration with the Copyright Office, the writer stands to lose tens of thousands of dollars (if not hundreds of thousands) that they could have received in attorney’s fees at the end of the case had the script been registered.
Another advantage to registration with the Copyright Office is that if the writer registers the screenplay within five years of its creation, the registration is considered prima facie evidence of the validity of the copyright and of the facts stated in the certificate (17 U.S.C. §410(c)). This can be important in cases where the infringement occurs many years after creation. I handled a case where the original work was created (and registered with the WGA) in 1981. My client did renew the work a few times but then stopped. By the time we filed the lawsuit (in 2006), there was no evidence in the WGA of the registration and my client was forced to prove that he actually wrote the work in 1981 (which is not easy). Had my client simply registered with the Copyright Office at the outset, we would not have had any problem because the registration itself would be considered proof that he wrote the script.
At one point in time, the WGA Registry served a purpose. In the pre-internet days, when copyright registrations had to be filled out by hand and writers mailed scripts to Washington, the Registry served as a low-cost and simple way for writers to prove the existence of their script. But the Registry’s purpose has past. Now that writers may visit the Copyright Office website, fill out a form and upload their script without leaving their desk, the advantages of the Registry are gone. And while the Copyright Office registration is slightly more expensive ($35), the registration lasts practically forever (until 70 years after the writer’s death). It doesn’t expire after five years as a WGA registration does. So please, register all your scripts with the Copyright Office and forget the WGA.
LARRY ZERNER is an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles at ZernerLaw. His practice specializes in copyright infringement cases. He is also the co-chair of the California Society of Entertainment Lawyers. For more information, visit www.ZernerLaw.com
The majority of file-sharing sites where piracy is rampant are based in countries outside of US jurisdiction. These sites are built for person-to-person file-sharing, which means no money is exchanged during a transaction. For example, one person might have the sheet music to The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square and another person might have Another Hundred People, and they would “trade.” In a case like this, the site providing the platform for file-sharing copyrighted material is usually not culpable for the actions of its users. (In the rare cases where the site is culpable, it will get taken down but might soon reappear under a different name. This behind-the-scenes process looks a lot like whack-a-mole.) In order to prosecute, you’d have to file individual claims against each user, and that would require thousands of individual claims. In our industry, these users tend to be collectors, performers, and fans, not corporate “power-users” like in some other industries. They’re minor players but their actions hurt writers quite a bit.
Make your plea personal. Remember that the majority of the people who are illegally trading songs and plays are also theater’s biggest fans; they’re people who want to be part of our community. Most don’t know that what they’re doing hurts someone. As the author of the pieces they love, you can help teach them the golden rules of our community. A simple request from the author-- a “please don’t trade this”-- can go a long way. Be honest in expressing the impact that illegal trading has on you and our theater community.
Whether in rehearsal rooms, audition settings or on the wilds of the internet, “watermarking” scripts and scores is a useful way to dissuade illegal photocopies and distribution. It’s a quick and easy process, doesn’t get in the way of the legibility of the file, and is one of the simplest ways to protect your work.
- Use the name! Whether selling sheet music online or passing a script to an actor, put the name of the person you’re sending your work to as a watermark on every page.
- Use the institution! If there’s no name, use the name of the college or casting director, and remember: you can always ask those institutions to add any additional watermark with student or actor names.
- Get assertive! Adding “Do Not Copy” or “For Private Use Only” adds clarity, and you can get specific if there are rules you want in place in an audition or educational setting.
- Keep it clear! Make sure to adjust the “transparency” so that both the watermark and your underlying text are readable. Ideally, aim for a light gray in big block letters that doesn’t distract from notes or words.
- Keep it on the page! Place a watermark across the entire width of the page - not as a header or footer on the top or bottom, where they can easily be cropped off.
- Adobe Acrobat Pro (pricy, robust features, great for multiple files)
- Watermark Pro (cheap, easy to use, capable)
- I Love PDF (free, easy to use, limited features)
There are many resources for copyright protection. Here are just a few that we have found to be helpful:
First, take a moment at the beginning of any class to explain that sharing pdfs of sheet music or plays is illegal. Second, encourage students to purchase their materials legally. Third, watermark the PDFs of your own sheet music or scripts that you might share with students. Remember, once you email any PDF to a student, you’ve lost control of the document. Your student might share it with another student. Then another student might trade it with a stranger in exchange for another piece of someone else’s intellectual property.
The Anti-Piracy Committee created an exciting music video, “Someone Wrote That Song,” with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Craig Carnelia.
The goal of the video is to inform the fans who are participating in the cultural trend of unlicensed downloads and file shares that their behavior is robbing the artists they love of their ability to make a living from their work, and that their theft is not an abstraction. . . in fact, someone wrote that song. Ironically, we urge everyone to steal it…play it, pass it around, tweet it, text it. Get the message out!
Section 110-1 of the Copyright Act says that if you are in a face-to-face classroom of a non-profit educational institution, you can alter the play in any way you like for the purposes of education. This is considered “fair use” and is not copyright infringement. But the minute a non-student comes into the room, or the play is otherwise presented to anybody who isn’t a student of that class (and whether or not tickets are sold), it becomes a copyright infringement. And if the show is presented in this way, the professor cannot add or delete scenes or make any other unauthorized changes; that can only be done inside the classroom. And neither can the professor “copy” the play without a license, even if it is just for classroom use. This is all laid out in the Copyright Office Circular 21.
The fierceness of the Copyright Law may come as a shock to some of you, because the openness of the internet makes it feel like plays and musicals don’t have the protection given them by copyright. But enforcing copyright takes every single one of us. If you want to continue to perform the shows you love, and discover new shows by the artists you admire, and maybe even create something yourself one day, then we ALL have to obey the law. We can’t be those people who say the law is whatever they say it is. Right? Right. Your computer is your computer, your shoes are your shoes and your work is your work! If you see something that has been stolen, altered or recast against the author’s wishes, say something. Call the licensing agency if you are asked to perform an “altered” work. If you don’t know who the publisher is, you can call us and we’ll tell you. And then, when YOU have a play at risk, we will protect you, too.