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THEATER NOTES : Violations of Copyright Laws Can Be a Frequent Occurrence : Even companies may not be aware of all the intricacies of the rules governing the use of songs and scripts.


One Ventura County theater group is known for performing original versions of classic stories, augmented by popular songs selected by the director. Another local company occasionally peps up less-than-sensational musicals with well-known songs from outside the original score. And virtually every theater group features recorded music before their shows and during intermission.

Whether any of those practices is legal is governed by a complex system of copyright laws. The public is unaware of most of them, and even theater companies have been known to plead ignorance when major fines are levied for violations.

The fact is, drama companies are not supposed to play other people's music in theaters without paying for it, though they commonly do so. Furthermore, copyrighted plays are not to be altered without express permission from the author. Nor, it evidently needs saying, can copyrighted work be performed without paying for its use.

That excludes Shakespeare and other authors whose work is in the "public domain" and thus unprotected by copyright legislation. But virtually every song, book or script written since the early years of this century is protected by law.

This gets tricky, but understanding some of the principles--seldom revealed to the public--will make you a better-informed theatergoer.

Take that intermission music. Songs are the property of composers and lyricists, and anybody who wants to use them must pay for the privilege.

In this country, two organizations collect royalties for most songs and distribute them to the music's owners: the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music, Incorporated (BMI).

"A singer can do his original works without paying anybody," explains Steven Blinn, BMI's media relations director, licensing. "But as soon as anybody does other songwriters' material in a live setting, those songwriters are entitled to compensation."

Usually, compensation is assessed via a blanket license, with a facility paying ASCAP and BMI fees covering all performances during a specified time period--annually, for instance, or for the length of a play's run.

How expensive is it? Plenty, if you're operating on a community theater or school budget. According to BMI's Blinn, for a theater with a capacity of under 250 seats, where ticket prices range between $8-$12-- which covers most Ventura County community and college theaters--BMI's fee for a "musical attractions license" covering intermission and any other music than what's in the play itself is $35 for each performance of the show, plus $150. If the theater is already licensed by BMI and/or ASCAP both must be paid. The fees are approximately the same.

Licensing the rights to a play includes permission to perform any music that's specifically included in it--the score of a musical, for instance, or the Irving Berlin song "Always," which is intrinsic to the farce "Blithe Spirit" and specified by author Noel Coward.

Permission to perform music in such a context falls under what's called "grand rights" to a show, which are not licensed by ASCAP or BMI, but by the authors, composers and lyricists themselves--usually via their authorized representatives. But what exactly constitutes "grand rights" isn't totally clear, even to experts.

"If it happens between when the curtain goes up and when the curtain goes down, that's a grand right," defines Los Angeles-based attorney Gary DaSilva, who represents authors including Neil Simon.

But in a sense, says Henry Wallengren, spokesman for playwrights' representative Samuel French Inc., "grand rights" is outmoded as an all-inclusive term.

"There are so many aspects--video rights, reprint rights, translation rights, the composer's rights, the lyricists' rights--that it's a Byzantine set of channels to go through to do a musical these days."

Which is why it's easiest to obtain an authorized version of a show from its proper representative, who has taken care of all appropriate licensing.

Less common legal violations of community and school theater groups include the changing of dialogue in copyrighted plays, or simply performing them without paying royalties. Attorney DaSilva tells of an Arizona drama teacher who once cast himself in a production of Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" and then increased the importance of his part by supplementing Simon's script. Alerted, Simon's lawyers cracked down.

"If you make unauthorized changes to a play," DaSilva explains, "you're making what's called a derivative work, attributing work to an author without permission."

Not that there isn't recourse. The simplest is for a playwright or his representative to deny permission to perform a given work. "Licensing is discretionary," DaSilva says. "An author does not have to allow his work to be done at all."

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