No doubt you've sat through (and maybe even enjoyed) at least one school play or recital. Every year, schools perform well-known plays and songs for their communities, often using ticket sales to raise much-needed funds. In almost every one of those performances, the material being performed is under copyright—it's the intellectual property of a person or company that probably depends on its use to generate income.
So what are the legal ramifications of putting on a copyrighted play? Do you need copyright permission? Can you sell tickets to the play and take a profit? Is any of that legal? Let's go behind the scenes and get answers to these questions and more.
What is a copyright?
All works, whether published or unpublished, are protected by copyright. The copyright may be held by an individual or company representing the playwright, publisher, or composer.
Licensing fees and royalties
Performing a work, whether a play script or musical score, is prohibited without receiving permission from the copyright holder, and in most cases paying a licensing fee and/or royalties. Fees and royalties are determined by the seating capacity of the theater, number of scripts ordered, number of performances, and ticket prices.
Keep in mind that musical compositions are protected in a slightly different manner in that the rights also include control over use in a public performance. “Performance” is defined rather broadly and can be taken to mean a classroom as well as a theater or other performance space, so even if you are using the music for a classroom performance that is not “open to the public,” it is necessary to obtain written permission and probably pay a fee to use the music.
Can I change the script or words to a song?
Simply put, no—not unless you receive written permission from the company or individual holding the rights. In other words, you cannot arbitrarily alter the words in a script or the words to a song to suit your school's needs without first contacting the copyright holder.
Can I record the event?
In general, personal recordings of your child acting or singing taken with your video camera are fine, but if a school wants to make an official recording of a play or performance and show it on say, the local cable channel, then permission must be requested and granted.
What if our school can't afford to pay fees and royalties?
If your school doesn't have the money to pay for royalty or licensing fees, then consider using material that has entered into the public domain and is free from copyright protection.
The rules regarding public domain, however, can be somewhat tricky. Works published on or before Jan. 1, 1923, are considered to be in the public domain. Works published between 1923 and 1977 that did not contain a valid copyright notice and works published between 1923 and 1963 with notice, but whose copyrights weren't renewed are also part of the public domain. Works created between 1964 and 1977 and published with copyright notice are protected in the U.S. until 95 years after the date of the initial publication; however, works published in the U.S. with copyright notice on or after Jan. 1, 1978, are protected by copyright for 70 years after the author's death. There are additional conditions in many cases, so check the U.S. Copyright website for public domain details.
The bottom line is that if you are not sure whether the song, play script, or anything else is protected by copyright, it pays to find out. With fines for copyright infringement ranging from $500 to $100,000 or more, copyright infringement is serious business and should not be taken lightly by anyone.
Copyright laws and school plays
Copyright Laws Do's And Don'ts: What Is Legal In The School Classroom
Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States
US Copyright Office
Find out more about Copyrights