The cover of The Atlanta Issue of The Dramatist
What Copyright Means to Me with Kait Kerrigan
Kait Kerrigan. Photo credit: Jenny Woodward
Photo credit: Jenny Woodward

To be a good musical theatre writer, you must be collaborative by nature. You must genuinely believe that having other artists at the table makes for better work. We are not novelists, creating entire worlds alone in private corners for others to enter only when they open the spine of the book. We are not even playwrights, generally crafting a full draft with a beginning, middle, and end before collaborating with directors, designers, and actors. As musical theatre writers, we say, “I have an idea,” and entreat others to join us in transforming that idea into a musical. 

And so, I don’t think all that much about my personal contribution. I think about being part of a whole. I think about the glorious ideas that didn’t occur to me, but that I get to build off of. And so, I don’t think all that much about copyright: the ownership of my ideas and words. That’s how it should be. 

Copyright is a tool for protection. The first time I wielded that tool, I was writing my first commission. I had written book and lyrics for the project, and a song I believed was essential to the show was in danger of being cut. I was on the phone with the director, who was breaking the news to me. I made my case for why it shouldn’t be cut, and I wasn’t getting through. In an effort to express how important this was to me, I finally said, “Look. I think you know that I own every word of this piece and if you cut this song, I’ll have to consider pulling my book. I don’t want to. Obviously, I want to do the show. But that’s how strongly I feel about this.” 

All of a sudden, the conversation shifted. I had stated my unassailable right as an author. While it was possible the show wouldn’t get produced if I protected my rights (producers have rights, too), I was in control of whether or not the words would be changed. It was my copyright, so it was my call. 

Ultimately, that show was performed, and the song that I fought for became the breakout hit of the musical. The producer even told me how much they loved the song. I genuinely think they forgot that they tried to cut it. 

There are lots of challenges to being a theatre writer. One of the biggest ones is how incredibly difficult it is to get to that “mid-career” moment when you’re seeing any financial return on your investment in your own work, when copyright turns into a means of making a living. 

But your copyright is there from the moment you begin. In fact, as a tool of protection, it’s most important when you’re “emerging.” The promise of someone producing your work has such pull that you’d do almost anything to make it happen. Copyright, however, guarantees you a position of power. It’s our job as writers to remember that we have that power and to use it to protect our work.

Kait Kerrigan

is an award-winning bookwriter, lyricist, and playwright. Musicals include The Mad Ones, Henry & Mudge, Justice, Earthrise, Rosie Revere, Engineer & Friends, The Bad Years, A Killer Party, and The Time Traveller’s Wife. Plays include Father/Daughter, Imaginary Love, Transit, and we have to hold hands