Live Theater Performance: The Director IP Dilemma

Intellectual Property and Live Theater Performance

Growing up 20 miles out of Manhattan, Broadway performances were a staple of my childhood. The prestige surrounding the Broadway theater scene is unmatched across the globe. The density of performers wanting to enter the industry is phenomenal; and when someone makes it it is to be respected. Intellectual property laws recognize these performances under copyright, to a degree.

Copyright laws govern a portion of the theater industry by protecting the rights of published works. The law states:

“Types of published or unpublished dramatic works that can be submitted for registration include choreography, pantomimes, plays, treatments, and scripts prepared for cinema, radio, and television. These works may be with or without music.”

Once a script, music score, or choreography is planned out, copyright law takes precedent. The hazy question comes into play when it comes to the actual live performance. Since the hard copy of the play itself is already protected, the producer and writer need not worry about exposing their work to the public. But the stage direction is where copyright falls short. Copyright lawyer Benedict O’Mahoney states that “traditionally Stage Directors have worked under “work for hire” agreements, which meant that they received credit for their work, but no copyright protection.” It was common in the earlier days of theater for the writer to have all direction of their work, leaving the director as a creative lackey at their side. Moving into the modern era of theater, it is often the producer who finds the perfect marriage of talents to create a hit, often mixing and matching well-known names in order to receive a return on investment. As directors become more essential to the stage performance equation, many are seeking legal protection from copycats of their stage direction.

Dramatists Guild Bill of Rights

The Dramatist Guild is an organization of theater professionals across the country who protect their craft by protecting each other. The Dramatist Guild Bill of Rights is a type of norm-based IP system in which members must conform to in order to maintain membership. These rights are split up to protect certain processes in theater production and promotion beginning with the starting artist: the author. The first section gives authors exclusive rights to have a hand in adaptations of their written performances as well as receive compensation. In the section of ownership, the guild clearly states that “authors in the theatre business do not assign their copyrights, nor do they ever engage in “work-for-hire”, meaning their work is never “for sale”. The section goes on to comment that directors are not authors and are therefore not liable in play ownership, even describing them as “still employees of the theatre”.

Contract Law

Contract law is the most common way for stage directors to receive compensation at this time. Contract law often is signed off with either the playwright but also the theater itself. When entering into contract law with the author, directors can receive monetary compensation for their artistic contribution but usually not property. In agreements with theaters, directors can bar audience members from filming or photographing their stage direction. It is often through photographs that stage direction is copied, which can be very hard to trace especially when including the small production theater community. Taking a photograph of the performance would be a breach of contract and allows for legal action, however, it still does not give the artist claim to his or her art.

My Conclusion:

Musical performance art was the largest event participated in by students in my high school in Westchester. Each performance would be sold out and our annual play would receive awards from the theater community consecutively every year. The impact on the community was extremely valuable and influence many students to pursue careers in theater including one of the Tony winning producers of “Wicked”. But it was not the author we had to thank for phenomenal performances, it was our esteemed director. Her art was not only in her well trained professional eye, but it was in her conduct and coordination of components that set her apart. She created a culture people wanted to be a part of and influenced excellence across the board. When attending the year end theater awards, sometimes you would encounter a school performing the same play as you, but it was never the same. The core principles of the play remain as long as there is a good director to bring them out of the script. One could argue that the script itself is not the art at all, it is the interpretation. In this way I think directors should receive credit for interpretations of their work in a similar way that magicians encourage and respect true innovation of tricks. I would like to compare theater direction being closer related to business process patents, and equally controversial issue. Theater practices are less quantifiable than business practices and would be even more difficult to define. In order to solve this problem, I would suggest including director compensation in the Guild Bill of Rights. Director innovation is extremely subjective and should only be judged by those who are experts in their field. The respect and honor for true artists that governs the theater community would be the strongest driver into allowing intellectual property rights for theater directors.



Copyright: Dramatic Works: Scripts, Pantomimes, and Choreography

U.S. Copyright Office , 4/2015, 11/2010


Copyright Laws- For Playwrights, Theater Managers, Producers, Artistic Directors, Theater Department Chairs, High School and College Teachers, Directors, and Sound Designers

Louis E. Catron , 4/2015, 2003


Why Can’t I Take Photos in a Broadway Theater?

Robert Simonson, PLAYBILL , 4/2015, 06/2011


Bill of Rights

Dramatist Guild , 4/2015, 2015


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