Unauthorized Production of "Coco: The Musical" Means Schools Still Don't Understand Copyright or Don't Care

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Recently, it was brought to OnStage Blog's attention that, yet again, a foreign school has performed unauthorized material. This seems to be a common occurrence as in the past year we've seen schools perform productions of HamiltonThe Book of Mormon and Bombshell with music from the TV show Smash all without having obtained permission. 

What makes these occurrences even worse is that they are often supervised by teachers or adults who should know better. When this happens, they are failing their students and putting their schools at risk of ever obtaining permission for future productions. 

The latest example comes from the Polytechnic University of The Philippines(PUP) where their theatre organization, the Molave Theatre Guild, just wrapped production on their musical adaptation of the Pixar film, Coco. Here are some of their promotional materials of the show. 

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Judging from the images above, this was a direct adaptation of the film and one that was done without Pixar/Disney's permission seeing as the companies haven't even adapted the film for the stage in the first place. To make matters worse, according to reports, Molave Theatre Guild did reach out to Pixar about getting permission but were denied and still went ahead with the production anyway. 

At some point, the adult in the room(in this case Prof. Jorgina V. David) needed to step and put an end to the production. But that didn't happen and Molave Theatre Guild and the Polytechnic University of The Philippines seemingly violated US Copyright Law (since the Philippines falls under the World Trade Organization). I'm hearing reports that rehearsals for their adaptation of The Greatest Showman are underway. I would urge them to cancel it. 

But what's more problematic to me is that one of the excuses I'm hearing for this production is that it was done with the belief that permission wasn't needed since the production was done in an academic environment. I've also heard from other schools that since tickets were free, then they wouldn't need to obtain permissions. These are myths that need clarification. 

According to US Copyright Code XX110, "a performance or display of a work by instructors or pupils in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a non-profit educational institution, in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction."

Now this means calling a full faculty or student-directed production without obtaining permission would not be permitted as it wouldn't count as "face-to-face teaching. But it does allow certain presentations inside the classroom, if limited to the teacher and members of that particular class. A perfect example of this would be scene presentations in acting classes or a discussion about certain songs or musical artists. 

However, where Molave got it wrong was that they invited the public to come and watch the performance. According to Copyright Law Reports a:xx2l25, "Performances or displays for entertainment or recreational purposes are not among those protected by the exemption."   

Which means, according to theatre educator Louis Catron, "If an "audience" is invited or permitted—once again, whether admission is charged is not a factor—there no longer is "face-to-face teaching." Instead a "entertainment" is in progress.  The spectators are not being instructed by the teacher.  They are not enrolled in that particular course.  Therefore getting permission is mandated."

Knowing and understanding this is key for schools all over the world that want to produce popular material. There shouldn't be any doubt or questions over it. Always obtain permission. Not doing so can result in harsh punishments. 

We've already seen what's happened stateside with the MTI/Theatrepalooza saga, the same could happen to PUP or worse. Licensing houses could deny the university rights to any theatrical properties and Disney/Pixar might take legal action. While you may think they wouldn't go after a small theatre group in the Philippines, keep in mind that PUP is a state-funded school which uses subsidies to provide free tuition to its students. That means one could argue that the Philippine government is technically liable for US Copyright violations, which Disney/Pixar could certainly go after. And before you start saying that this type of battle wouldn't be up Disney's alley, think again. This is the same company who once sued a husband and wife for $1 million for using knock-off Tigger and Eeyore costumes at birthday parties. 

But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this from schools in the Philippines and it won’t be the last. We’re now getting reports that another theatre organization is planning a production of Moana  this September. Last year the same group, Iloilo Prima Galaw performed Frozen. Here is a picture of the production which ran last September.

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Given that this production opened before the Broadway production did means that there was no way that Disney would a production like this its blessing.

While I fully understand and appreciate the enthusiasm of students to perform their favorite musicals and plays, adults in the room need to make sure that all the ducks are in a row with licensing permission being the first priority. Otherwise you're not just failing the students, you're putting your institutions at risk. Everyone needs to play by the same rules when it comes to respecting copyright. If we here in the US do, then those in the Philippines need to as well.