Copyright Laws for Playwrights

By Holly Cameron

Copyright laws in the United States encourage the creation of dramatic works by granting exclusive rights to the writer. The Copyright Act of 1976 prevents others from reproducing or distributing copies of a play, or performing it in public, without the playwright’s permission. Copyright lasts for the duration of a playwright’s life plus 70 years. Although copyright exists from the moment any artistic work is written or performed, many authors and playwrights seek additional protection by registering a copy of the work with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Copyright Office Registration

Copyright in any artistic work exists from the moment that the work is set in a tangible form. For a playwright, this usually occurs when you complete a written version of the script. You do not need to register your work with the Copyright Office, but you have greater powers of copyright enforcement if you do. To register copyright on a published script, a copy of the play must be sent to the Copyright Office with the required filing fee. As of January 2012, the fee was $35 for electronic registration and $65 for paper registration. To protect a non-published play, you should send two copies of the best edition of the work for registration.

Fair Use

The doctrine of fair use allows others to copy or reproduce your play without permission in certain, limited circumstances. These include parody, commentary, news reporting, research and education. Section 107 of the Copyright Act contains the relevant legal provisions for fair use and states that the use should be for non-commercial purposes and should not adversely affect the value of the copyrighted work. In practice, schools and colleges often copy and distribute extracts from plays for educational purposes and the law generally considers this as fair use.

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Works for Hire

If you write a play for someone else, such as for a theater company or commercial organization, the law may regard your play as a “work for hire.” Section 101 of the Copyright Act states that if you create an artistic work as an employee, your employer owns the copyright. If an organization commissions a play from you as a freelance writer, on the other hand, you generally own the copyright, unless you sign an agreement assigning the copyright to the commissioning organization.

Joint Works and Improvisations

In some situations, a play evolves from the joint creative efforts of actors, directors and writers. Copyright law provides that the person who “fixes” the work in tangible form – for example, writing the script on paper – will own the copyright, unless all parties agree that it should be classified as a joint work. If, during play rehearsals, an actor improvises dialogue or actions, the copyright remains with the playwright and includes any changes made by the actor.

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