Copyright Law and Its Place for Christians and in the
Many websites can be found on the internet dealing with
copyright laws (not the least of which is http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/
the US Copyright Office). There are also some that deal with
Copyright and its place in the theatre (one of the best I've found being http://lecatr.people.wm.edu/copy.htm
where some of the information on this page comes from...yes, with
permission of the owner). However,
when it comes to Christians, we can often times be one of the worst groups
for violating copyright laws in any situation. However, I don't
believe, through my own experiences with others, that the violations are
intentional but rather out of ignorance. So, abiding by the saying
that ignorance of the law is no excuse, I give you this primer on the
copyright laws and how it pertains to Christians and, specifically,
Christians in the arts.
First of all, the final straw that made me
create this page. As I was talking with another theatre professional
about a script that we had been handed which had been discovered in a
dusty stack, the other professional stated that he was sure that the
script was old enough and that the publisher was out of business enough
that it could be freely duplicated and presented. The fact of the
matter is that the script was published in the mid-1960s. So,
according to current copyright laws, even should the author have died
immediately upon publication, the script would still be protected from
duplication and presentation until at least 2030 (if it was published in
1960). In other situations, I have seen theatres take a
well-known musical and, with seemingly reckless abandon, change the lines,
songs, or other parts of the script so that it would better suit their
cast or situation. Again, I don't think their actions were
deliberately aimed at infringing on the author's copyrights but, through
their ignorance of the law, they did overstep what is allowed under the
So, to that end, what is copyright
and what can be copyrighted?
protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S.
Code), granting authors and other artists the exclusive privilege to
control reproduction, distribution, performance, or displays of their
creative works. Part of a larger legal family known as intellectual
property that also includes siblings trademark and patent law, copyright
safeguards creators of "original works of authorship" such as
dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual work.
A number of creative works are eligible for copyright.
In order for a work to be copyrighted, the work
must be tangible; i.e. fixed in some form. The copyright office divides
such works into eight basic categories: 1) literary works; 2)
musical works, including any accompanying words; 3) dramatic works,
including any accompanying music; 4) pantomimes and choreographic works;
5) pictorial, graphic and sculptural works; 6) motion pictures and other
audiovisual works; 7) sound recordings; and 8) architectural works.
What cannot be copyrighted?
Some things are not considered covered under the copyright
laws. Some of those categories are listed below:
A title cannot be copyrighted because it is not, in
itself, a "work". So you could write a play and call
it Death of a Salesman if you wanted to and be perfectly legal
under the copyright laws. However, some things may be covered
under other laws of intellectual property depending on who created
them and how they are treated.
Facts, such as news or histories, are not considered creative but
are public information.
Governmental materials are also non-creative and public information.
Ideas are not copyrighted because they don't
Names cannot be copyrighted. However, trademark
laws do govern names like Kleenex and McDonalds.
Characters are not protected by copyright laws.
However, as with names, some may be covered by trademark laws.
What is the duration of the copyright laws?
As it relates to a play script, or any other copyright-able
work, copyright protection begins immediately (even the
copyright offices puts that in bold type) and lasts for the artists
life plus 70 years. If a work is created by multiple artists, the
copyright protection extends until 70 years after the last participating
artist dies. For anonymous or pseudonymous works and works made for
hire (usually, a work created by an employee unless other arrangements are
made) lasts for 95 years from the first publication, or 120 years from the
year of creation, whichever expires FIRST. While this is a very
simplified version of the copyright duration, a more elaborate table
outlining exactly how long copyright lasts for items produced in various
years is available at /www.unc.edu/~unclng/public-d.htm.
Notice the protection begins immediately once the work has
been created. It is not necessary for an author to register the work
with the copyright office in order for that work to be copyrighted.
As the copyright office says, "In general, registration is
voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is
created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a
lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work."
What does it mean if a work is copyrighted?
If you are considering performing a copyrighted work you
must first determine if it is available for performance. Usually you
can find that information by contacting the publisher or, if possible, the
author. Once you've found out whether the play or musical is
available, you should also determine if a royalty is required for
performance. Many plays available require a modest royalty to be
paid before a performance can be made. The royalty is how the
playwright makes his or her living. Some would consider it Research
and Development money toward the creation of more creative works from that
playwright. The rates vary but usually are
between $15 for a one act and $100 for a full-length play per performance. Musicals
are more and usually also include a script and music rental fee. If
you don't want to pay the royalty fees and purchase the required number of
scripts, DO NOT PERFORM THE WORK. Penalties for breaking copyright
laws can be stiff. More on that later. Once you have contracted to perform the work,
don't change the script at all unless arrangements have been made IN
WRITING with the author or representative. The script, as published,
is exactly what the author had in mind. Changing the script, even
one word, is an infringement of the author's copyrights. Sometimes,
if approached, the author will allow changes to be made but don't count on
it. If you can't use the script as-is, try contacting the author or
agent. However, make sure you try contacting them plenty early as
the process can sometimes take quite some time. Also, make sure you
have a back-up plan for if the author denies your request (perfectly
within their rights).
What is the penalty for infringement?
With the copyright laws being given such prominent place
in the constitution,
- Article I, Section 8
promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for
limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their
respective writings and discoveries.
it is not surprising that the penalties are also
stiff. Federal copyright law establishes statutory fines for each
act of copyright infringement, ranging from a minimum of $500 for
"innocent" infringement to a maximum of $100,000 for
"willful" infringement. Note: Most licensing
agreements define any unauthorized changes as "willful"
Also, a large number of people could be charged for a
single violation of copyright. The Federal Copyright Act extends
"joint and several" liability for each infringement. Each
individual involved could be held responsible for the whole amount of the
fine--director, individual members of the production staff, each member of
the cast and crew (or their legal guardians), the producing organization,
the owner of the building in which the performances take place, and in the
case of public schools, the school board or district.
If we don't charge admission, we don't have to get
permission or pay a royalty.
WRONG. If you have an audience, you have a
performance. If you have a performance, you have to pay a royalty.
It was part of a class exercise.
Possibly valid--Only if NO ONE but the CLASS was
present. As soon as an audience is present, it is no longer an
"educational experience". Permission is required.
No one will ever know if we do it without permission.
WRONG. This is first a defensive statement based on
admitted guilt. Secondly, it's not true. Publishers and agents
go to great lengths to ensure that their works are not performed without
permission. These lengths include subscribing to clipping services
that focus on finding every mention of plays in newspapers and magazines.
A great site titled 10 Big Myths about copyright
explained (which actually has 11 myths now) goes into detail about
these and other misconceptions. You can find this site at www.templetons.com/brad/copymyths.html.
I have just touched the surface of the copyright
issue. As I said in the introduction, most people who I know that
have broken the copyright have done so out of ignorance rather than deliberate
breaking of the law. However, ignorance of the law will not get you
out of the penalties for breaking those laws. The website above (http://lecatr.people.wm.edu/copy.htm)
has many more links for information about copyright laws. It also
goes much more in depth as to what is actually covered, in a production
situation, by the copyright laws. The author of that site
specifically stated to me that he is not a copyright lawyer.
However, he has done his homework and spoken with law professionals and
others involved in copyright law. Nearly every major play publishing
organization will include a copyright notice on their website, in their
catalog and in every copy of their scripts. Check it out. And
remember, IT'S THE LAW!