Check Yourself: A Really Basic Overview of Copyright for Theatre Teachers

Brittany Strelluf

When it comes to theatrical productions, teachers need to have at least some knowledge of copyright for the shows that they want to perform.

On Stage has been reporting a recent slew of copyright infringement cases. Recently, a high school production of The Lion King which was forced to cancel performances.  This whole ordeal was even more heartbreaking since students had already begun performances. These kids worked for several hours every day for weeks to create a show, and they ended up having to cancel.

Another theatre group was just outed for performing the play RENT under a different title in a thinly veiled attempt to avoid paying for the licensing rights.  Another theatre group canceled a production of Bombshell, a show within the television show, Smash. Perhaps the most cringe-worthy of these was a university production of The Book of Mormon in Rio de Janerio.  The university not only performed the show without permission, they did so in blackface.

Most trained and educated theatre teachers are fully aware of the ramifications of copyright violations. But just for kicks, let’s revisit copyright laws in simple language. Of course, an article or several articles really is in no way a substitute for real, professional, legal advice. If you are not sure if you are violating copyright, contact a copyright attorney and the publishing company whose work you wish to bring to life.

According to the  United States Copyright Office, Copyright is a legal way to protect original works. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works. There are some works that are considered Public Domain. Public Domain waters can be difficult to navigate. Be sure to do your research.

Before you can even hold an audition, you must apply for the rights to the show. Written approval must be given in order to produce a show.  So, do yourself a favor and hold off on announcing the season until after you have procured the proper paperwork.

Some show rights are completely off limits. As in, there is no legal way to perform this production.  This is the case if a show is currently touring or if a major motion film is being created. With many scripts, licenses must be purchased whether or not you charge admission.

An adult must fill out an application for the rights.  Applications usually include your school’s contact information and the desired show. You must also disclose the planned performance date and your company’s audience capacity. After that, the company then will issue a License Agreement to you. The agreement sets forth the royalties and other fees that you must pay.

For other questions or concerns, contact the publishers of the piece you wish to perform. Legalzoom also has some great information on this subject. It might be a tempting thought to perform a piece without paying the royalties. However, in this case, it is far better to seek permission than to ask forgiveness.

Feel free to send this to anyone bugging you to do Hamilton at your local high school.

(Please note: although Legalzoom was referenced in this article, this is not a sponsored post.)