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Be Right About Rights


Last week I read an article on Broadway News that made me think. Musical Theatre International, MTI, had sued a theater company last June because it had come to their attention that the theater company was doing musicals for their summer camp, but hadn’t been paying for the rights. Last week a judge ruled in favor of MTI and awarded them $450,000 in damages.

One of the themes of my teaching and learning is that once you know, you can’t unknow. Today, reading this blog, you know that getting rights to a work is an important part of your path. You may already know it, and have good practices around rights. Or you may be confused about rights, and decide not to deal with them. The second is not a good path.

What are rights? Rights are both the permission to do the work and a payment for that permission. At the core, the permission is crucial. Do you have permission to do the work you are doing? Have you paid for that permission?

Some of you may be thinking that you’re doing a new take on a show, so do you really need the rights to do it? Well, there are a couple of things to think about. If something is in copyright, you need to get permission to make changes. Paying for the rights alone does not give you permission. Check your license agreement carefully.

Folks can apply for permission to make changes, but if the playwright or their estate don’t grant the permission, you’re done. At that point it is well worth taking a moment to consider another work that aligns with your mission or desire for the work you are creating. What is the goal of your production? Have you looked at the New Play Exchange? New work, and playwrights, may give you an opportunity to align more successfully with your goals.

For music, before you use a song or record it, double check on what you need to do to get permission. Do you need to pay for the rights? Are there other things you need to do? I’m not as familiar with that world, but a quick Google search lets me know that there are things to consider.

Suppose you want to take a work from one realm (like a book), and use it in another way (a play, a dance, a movie). Again, make sure you don’t need permission for the underlying rights. The original creator, or their estate, can have works in copyright for 50-100 years depending on the law of copyright. So what does that mean? Make sure you have permission (rights) to use a work in copyright so you don’t spend a lot of time creating something you can’t perform.

Now, if you create a parody, you may not need permission. But be careful with that--is the work you are creating truly a parody?

How do you get rights, or make sure you’re on the correct path? What else should you consider?

  • Do your research. Look in the play you are reading--does it indicate where the rights are held? It may take some work to find out who holds the rights to a work, but keep looking.
  • Know that translations of very old plays (like Moliere), may be in copyright.
  • If you think that doing new work could solve the rights issues, do it the right way. The Dramatists’ Guild has lots of resources for creators. Understanding different contracts can be very helpful.
  • Know that the granting of rights isn’t automatic. In the past, I’ve not been able to get rights, and I’ve also had rights pulled. Usually these things happen when a larger company is interested in the work. When the rights were pulled, it was because there was talk of a national tour of the work so a amateur production happening at the same time would not serve the work.
  • Also, know that rights are attached to images and logos as well. Before you post anything online, make sure you have the rights.

There is a lot of information in this post, and I’m only skimming the surface. The bottom line is this--pay attention to rights. Don’t assume you don’t need to get them, or that you won’t get “caught”. Respect the work of playwrights, choreographers, composers and other creators.

On Wednesday, January 23 at 2PM EST I will be doing a Facebook Live about this topic. Come on by and ask questions, or comment.

Once you know, you can’t unknow.

Now you know!

 PS, the above video is from the Facebook Live!


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