How to Copyright Productions

by Terry Masters

Theatrical productions are typically a combination of artistic elements such as acting, singing, dancing and direction. The creator of each artistic element has a copyright in his creation the moment it is expressed through a fixed format, such as by writing or recording it. Theater production copyrights are different than in the film, music or television business. In theater, the playwright, lyricist and composer own their work by default, unless they are actual employees of the producer. Dramatic works are excluded from the work-for-hire provisions of the Copyright Act; that means the producer doesn't automatically own the copyright of the other artists' work, but instead it is typically determined by contract. The show's producer would obtain a copyright in the performance of the production as soon as the entire show is recorded; however, the copyright in each individual component of the production that qualifies as an original work would belong to the person or entity that holds ownership rights.

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Step 1

Record the performance of the production using audiovisual equipment. U.S. copyright law requires an original work to be "fixed" in form in order to gain copyright protection. Recording a live performance meets this requirement and gives the producer of the show instantaneous copyright in the performance. It prevents others from using the performance without permission.

Step 2

Register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration allows you to protect your copyright from infringement under the U.S. Copyright Act by bringing a copyright infringement lawsuit in the federal courts. Go to the website of the Copyright Office and use the electronic copyright office system, known as eCO, to submit your registration. The system requires you to submit two copies of the recording, which you can upload or mail in separately. The fee to register your copyright using eCO is $35 as of publication date. Alternatively, you can mail in a registration application using the Copyright Office's Form PA or Form CO, which apply to the performing arts. The fee is $50 or $65.

Step 3

Register the copyrights in any component parts of the production that are not held by individual artists with the U.S. Copyright Office. This can include the stage direction, choreography, set designs, photography or any other part of the production that qualifies as an original work. Go to the Copyright Office's website and use the eCO system to process your registrations. You have the option of mailing in paper registrations for a higher fee. Provide the office with copies of the work.