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.
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.