Playwrights: Not Actually Slaves


This is a playwright. Playwrights are people. This particular playwright is the awesome Lauren Yee.

Why are so many people surprised to discover that you ALWAYS have to secure the rights to perform a play that’s not in the public domain, whether you’re charging admission or not? Do they think “published” means “public domain”? Do they just think they won’t get caught? Do they think schools, churches, and cafes are magically exempt? I don’t get it.

If your school, church, or theatre company needed a pickup truck (don’t we all), would you just take one you liked off the street? So why do you feel entitled to do that with someone’s play?

I don’t want to argue about copyright law. I really don’t.


So for the purposes of this post, I’m going to limit this to living playwrights.

Living playwrights are people who work hard at a job makin’ stuff. And the stuff they make are PLAYS. It’s hard, thankless, underpaid work. The number of people who actually make a living on nothing but their rights ‘n’ royalties is something like, oh, I don’t know, let’s sayyyyyyyy . . .  12. The rest are teaching, writing for TV and film, processing purchase orders, giving handies in the alley, waiting tables, and all manner of things that aren’t writing plays.

Do you like plays? I do. You do, right? OK, do you like GOOD plays? Show of hands? EXCELLENT. So imagine this: If we PAY playwrights to do the job of writing plays, more of them could quit that job at the Cheesecake Factory and just WRITE. I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it is to create quality writing after a day of being yelled at by people who think service personnel are subhuman servebots who both DESERVE and WELCOME the wrath of a frustrated middle manager failing spectacularly to impress his blind date.

It’s hard enough for playwrights to support themselves with their writing without people stealing their work. While I’m not an idiot (despite what you may have heard) who believes that closing that loophole would result in all playwrights suddenly getting a living wage, a tiara, and a case of Newcastle, making sure they’re paid for their work is a step closer to that ideal.

Let’s review:

1. Yes, it is the law (no matter what you THINK of the law) that you cannot use someone else’s intellectual property without their consent, and any play by a living playwright is that playwright’s intellectual property. It belongs to that playwright, just like her bed, her toothbrush, or her Magic cards. You are not entitled to use her property simply because you can get to it without her seeing you.

2. Playwrights DESERVE to be compensated for their work. Slavery is not actually OK. If a playwright allows you to use her work free of charge, that is a GIFT to you. If you perform her work without paying for it and without her consent, that is theft. You are not ENTITLED to her labor. She is not your slave.

3. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you perform, or what you charge. It matters not if you are the Endor Community Theatre or Patti Lupone Elementary or Our Lady of the Sacred Sound Design Church and ADR Studio. It doesn’t matter if you’re not charging for admission. It doesn’t matter if you’re performing in a cafe, or a park, or your mom’s driveway. HOW YOU PRODUCE THAT WORK doesn’t change the fact that the work is not YOURS to use without consent.

So get the rights, OK? OK.

UPDATE: Playwright Don Zolidis, who knows much more about this than I do, says his estimation is that about 50 playwrights are currently making a living from their plays alone. So more than 12, but not nearly enough.

Also: You can learn more about Lauren Yee here.

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12 thoughts on “Playwrights: Not Actually Slaves

  1. Really well said! Same goes for songwriters. All artists.

  2. Novelists, too, are getting ripped off daily. Their work is being scanned in and scammers are giving it away for free. Which just grinds me.

    Awesome post. Sharing…

  3. gwangung says:

    I just can’t conceive of not paying the playwright for their work….(well, unless they said that they didn’t want the royalties…)

  4. amy mueller says:

    fab post, really great. thank you!

  5. Dig. Seriously dig.

    And for the record, as a playwright myself, let me say that I have NEVER given a handjob in an alley… I conduct my business in the men’s room of a posh wine-bar, thank you very much!

  6. Excellent excellent excellent post. Thank you

  7. Primrose Madayag Knazan says:

    Great post. Twice I’ve had people come up to me years after the fact to tell me that they saw scenes from two of my plays performed at schools. And once I had someone tell me that they studied one of my plays in a women’s studies course where copies of my play were distributed to the professor who proceeded to use my play for three years. And for all three instances I was given the excuse “But it’s a
    school!” or “It’s just one scene!” But for an emerging playwright, every page counts.

  8. This has been part of the Copyright Act since 1997. No licence with a copyright collective required:

    “29.5 It is not an infringement of copyright for an educational institution or a person acting under its authority to do the following acts if they are done on the premises of an educational institution for educational or training purposes and not for profit, before an audience consisting primarily of students of the educational institution, instructors acting under the authority of the educational institution or any person who is directly responsible for setting a curriculum for the educational institution:

    (a) the live performance in public, primarily by students of the educational institution, of a work;”

    • Sure. But speaking as someone who’s spent nearly two decades teaching at the university level, that’s a very rare occurrence. The vast majority of university performances sell tickets to the public. I’m proud to say that I’ve never taught at a university that failed to get the rights for a production.

      Moreover, it’s the right thing to do, rather than scheme how you can avoid paying a playwright (or a translator) who’s barely making enough to pay rent by pretending that your audience is mostly students, while you sell tickets online, make facebook events, and send PR out to local press.

  9. Wonderful site. Plenty of useful info here. I’m sending it to a few buddies ans additionally sharing in delicious. And of course, thank you in your effort!

  10. Thanks for helping out, great information. “Nobody can be exactly like me. Sometimes even I have trouble doing it.” by Tallulah Bankhead.

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