MTI Sues Children's Theatre Group Over Unpaid Licensing Fees

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Over the past couple of years, Theaterpalooza Community Theater Productions, Inc. has been producing shows such as Matilda, Seussical, Little Shop of Horrors, and Honk!

The only problem is the Virginia theatre company, apparently, hasn't been paying licensing fees to do so. And now, Music Theatre International (MTI) has come to collect. 

Last month, MTI filed a lawsuit in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia for presenting at least 16 unauthorized productions of MTI titles....16. 

According to a statement from MTI President and CEO Drew Cohen, "At MTI, we promote artistic expression by ensuring that every copyrighted work is properly licensed for performance. Since our mission is to promote and facilitate the performance of musical theatre, we do not like to take formal legal action, and usually we do not need to do so. But it is unfair to our authors and the thousands of customers who work hard in making contributions to our common cultural heritage and enrichment to allow unlicensed, repeat infringements of those valuable properties. Aside from depriving the shows’ creators of their livelihood, failing to obtain a license also inhibits MTI from ensuring the shows are being properly presented and delivering what the audiences have paid for and expect.”

The suit seeks either actual damages including profits from the productions or maximum statutory damages, an injunction against continued infringement and other costs. 

According to MTI officials, they apparently made several attempts to collect payment from Theaterpalooza but never received any. 

To be honest, this is the first time I've seen MTI take such a step in trying to resolve copyright infringement. At the same time, this is the first time I've seen a local theatre try to sneak by copyright law so egregiously. While Theaterpalooza hasn't put out a statement, 16 shows with several attempts by MTI is ridiculous. 

Also, at least from their fee descriptions, Theaterpalooza could more than have paid for the rights for these shows. The registration and tuition fees aren't cheap. Registration fees are $25/$45 each plus a $600 tuition(with $100 due at registration). They also charge late fees of $25 if tuition payments are missed. They also charge up to $60 for hour-long voice lessons. 

With $600 per child going towards these productions, it would have cost around the tuition of three kids to pay for these rights. Instead, it's likely going to cost Theatrepalooza a lot more. Since the company has been around since 1996, I wouldn't be surprised if MTI starts to look back even further for any possible infringements. 

Copyright infringement is nothing new when it comes to theatrical properties. But as I said before, this is a rare example. Theaterpalooza and its leadership has a lot to answer for. In addition to repeated warnings from MTI, it would appear that they should have known better. The founder of the company, Teri Walker, has been a professional performer in the past. 

Walker told the Times-Mirror she has been working with MTI's attorneys for several weeks to resolve the issue.

“It is a billing issue, and we want to make arrangements and pay,” Walker said. “Ten of the shows we never produced, and some of the shows are our own versions. We have now taken all of their shows off our schedule. We do a lot of original shows and have our own writers on staff.”

Walker said this is “very embarrassing” and that she has tried to be in compliance.

“We have had financial issues over the years, but we are doing wonderful things for children here. For the last four years we have brought children to Carnegie Hall, and we have great after-school programs with singing, dancing, acting, professional tutoring and piano lessons.”

In response to questions about additional legal issues in Loudoun County, including lawsuits alleging non-payment of rent, Walker said they are “complicated issues.”

“We have built our own theater in Ashburn and we want children to love the arts. We are doing wonderful things for children and produce sold-out shows,” Walker said.

Let this serve as a reminder, if you try to produce unauthorized material, it's more than likely going to catch up with you at some point. It certainly did here. 

We'll keep an eye on this as the case progresses and update it accordingly.