What Is Copyright?
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 any more, 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.
Why Do We Need It?
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.
To Whom Does Copyright Apply?
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 requires 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.
What is Legal in the Classroom?
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.