When a group of illustrious playwrights including George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, and Eugene O’Neill gathered to form The Dramatists Guild – the nation’s first and only trade association for American theater writers – they held one ideal paramount: copyright. They believed that every author should maintain the legal rights to his or her own work. Their intent was clear; in maintaining their own copyrights, authors could control the creative life of their material. They could choose their own producers, their own directors, and their own casts, and no changes could be lawfully made in production without their explicit consent.
Their colleagues in film and television eventually chose a different course; they decided to forego copyright and opted for all the benefits of a traditional union: pension, health benefits and the right to collectively bargain. They would be true “workers for hire,” rather than owners of their material, and would grant full creative control to their employers. But the Guild still believes in the primacy of copyright. Your work truly belongs to you. You have the exclusive right to control where, how and by whom it is presented. We’ve spelled this all out, and more, in The Dramatists Bill of Rights. We feel so strongly about this principle that we’ve sacrificed the benefits of unionization available to conventional employees, like our Writers Guild colleagues in film and television and our fellow theatrical collaborators in the Society of Directors and Choreographers and the United Scenic Artists union.
We are often asked, “why do we have to sacrifice one for the other? Can’t we own our copyrights and still be a union? After all, choreographers and designers keep their copyrights, yet they are still members of theatrical unions (like the SDC and USA). Why are we different?” This is a good question, and the answer is complex and legalistic, but it boils down to the fact that the Guild has been the subject of some bad case law over the years and so, after surviving two anti-trust lawsuits, playwrights are viewed by the law as property owners who license the use of their property, rather than employees entitled to collectively bargain for the conditions of their labor.
But even if there was a sudden change of heart by the Justice and Labor departments, and dramatists could then somehow attain labor status, it would still not be a panacea. In that event, producers would likely insist on owning your copyrights as a condition of any collectively negotiated contract, just as they have with the writers for film and television. Unlike film and TV, however, where hundreds of feature films and thousands of hours of television are produced every year, providing numerous opportunities for writers to make a living at their craft, there is simply not enough of a volume of theatrical production in America to allow enough dramatists to make enough of a living to justify this trade-off.
So, while the Guild cannot offer health care or retirement benefits, the Guild works tirelessly to protect your copyright through its advocacy and contracts, as well as the efforts of the Dramatists Guild Legal Defense Fund and the DG Copyright Management Company, so you can ensure that your work is presented in a manner consistent with your vision and intent. You will not be summarily rewritten by strangers, or denied credit for the words you penned or the notes you composed. The Guild also recommended economic terms for dramatists that have become industry standards and have allowed you to profit from your work, so you can maintain your calling as a profession, not just a hobby. That, coupled with a host of other amenities (like free business advice from our staff attorneys, our bi-monthly magazine and website, development of your craft through the Dramatists Guild Institute, the funding of a variety of awards and grants, the charitable works of the Dramatists Guild Foundation, the advocacy by the Lilly Foundation on behalf of women and people of color and by the DLDF on behalf of free expression, as well as access to free theater tickets through “Playwrights Welcome” and to counseling from the Actor’s Fund regarding health insurance and other social services) make the Guild well worth joining. But it’s the demonstration of solidarity with your professional colleagues that makes Guild membership more than a good deal or a good idea… it makes your membership a moral imperative.