The Young Dramatists Issue 1
Dramatist’s Bill of Rights: Subsidiary Rights

Playwrights, composers, lyricists, and librettists often struggle professionally in theatres due to the wide-ranging demands and expectations imposed on them by their producers (and other collaborators). It is essential, therefore, that dramatists know their rights, which the Dramatists Guild established in 1926 and has defended ever since.

To protect their unique vision, which has always been the strength of the theatre, dramatists need to understand this fundamental principle: you own and control your work. To ensure this ownership and control, the Guild recommends that any production involving a dramatist incorporate a written agreement in which both the producer and the writer acknowledge certain key industry standards. Collectively, we call these ten basic points the Dramatist’s Bill of Rights.

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3. Subsidiary Rights

Around 2009, the Guild sent up a Bat Signal over subsidiary rights (which the kids call “subrights”): an admittedly obscure concept. I started getting all these forwarded email chains and event invitations discussing it. (From Marsha Norman, no less! Well, not from Marsha directly; I was like six recipients out.) Formally, the concept of subrights involves your ability to take your play and license it to whichever theatres you want or convert it to whatever format you want (screenplay, TV series, etc.). At the time, this honestly didn’t mean much to me! I was writing small-cast black box plays; it’s not like I hoped those plays would eventually become screenplays with characters that would be turned into plushies and sold at theme parks. But the practical application of subrights—the reason for the alarm—was completely valid. Because theatres had started thinking of our subrights as a potential revenue stream. If you were lucky enough to have your play done at a big off-Broadway theatre, that theatre would stick a subrights clause in their contract asking for 30% to 40% of all future royalties you’d ever earn from the play. Summer development conferences were considering asking for subrights, too, meaning they’d get to tithe your earnings just for doing a workshop. But the Guild’s word-of-mouth campaign got the theatres to reconsider their stance; the summer conferences reversed course and the producing theatres started asking for lower percentages. Which means if your play is successful, you might just make a living off your own work! Ultimately the Guild raised an alarm over a concept I’d never heard of before, but that alarm got me to join and support the Guild.

Mike Lew
Mike Lew

is a Dramatists Guild Council member whose plays include tiny father (Audible); Teenage Dick (Donmar Warehouse, Ma-Yi, Wooly Mammoth, Huntington); Tiger Style! (SCR, Olney, Huntington, La Jolla Playhouse, Alliance); and Bike America (Ma-Yi, Alliance); He and Rehana Lew Mirza cowrote Bhangin’ It with composer/lyricist Sam Willmott (La Jolla Playhouse).