Play Rights: Wise Words on Guarding Your Work

Anyone who has written for the stage obviously hopes to see his or her vision come to life on the stage. However, since theatre is a collaborative process, there are many different opportunities for that creative vision to go awry. A director might miss the point of the play, actors may change words or lines, producers may decide to alter the concept-or, worse, bring in other writers to "clarify the theme" or "punch up the jokes."

Playwrights and librettists, therefore, often need to monitor productions of their work so that what is on the page ends up on the stage. Yes, you may have just written the next stage play destined to take the Great White Way (or some regional counterpart) by storm. But you have to be careful that your work makes it to the theatre intact.

Of course, the first place to start protecting your work is getting a signed contract, which will give you a legal foothold in the matter. If you have a literary agent or manager, he can help by representing your interests, making you more secure in how your work will be translated to the stage. A dramaturg can facilitate at rehearsals when the author can't be there; and, of course, a conscientious director will take the words on the page and bring them to life the way the writer intended.

In all cases, however, the writer must take an active part, not only in only getting the work out there to be produced, but in making sure it's being shaped and presented in the appropriate manner.


Any writer of stage plays and musicals will benefit from becoming a member of The Dramatists Guild of America. This New York-based organization and its council are committed to protecting the rights of its membership. The Guild does so by educating its members about what their rights are, and pointing out things they should be looking for contractually to protect themselves-including ownership of copyright and retaining control over all artistic matters involving a production.

According to this group's mission statement, "It is the artistic heritage of the playwright and a longstanding principle of The Dramatists Guild of America that the dramatist owns and controls the intellectual property, including the copyright, of the author's script and of all changes of any kind whatsoever in the manuscript, title, stage business or performance of the play."

Christopher Wilson, executive director of the Dramatists Guild, states, "We can certainly suggest to people what they should and should not do. The model contracts that we provide for people to use in their negotiations do contain what we feel are the appropriate provisions regarding copyright control and artistic control in a way that the author owns the copyright, no changes can be made to the work without the author's approval, and any changes the author approves belong to the author. In terms of the artistic side, the author gets a veto on all the creative matters: casting, director, designer.

"The Dramatists Guild unfortunately cannot act as anybody's enforcement agent; we won't represent somebody as their lawyer or anything like that-we're just not equipped to do that. Primarily we see our mission as being able to help people protect themselves by educating them about what they need to do."

Wilson lists the following essential elements that should be remembered when trying to keep control over your written work:

1) The writer owns the copyright.

2) No changes may be made to the writer's work without the writer's explicit approval, and any such approved changes belong to the writer.

3) The writer has approval over all principal artistic elements of a production.

4) Following the production, the writer controls all subsequent exploitations of the work. That is, the writer, and only the writer, can license a new or different production, publication, or the like.

The Dramatists Guild is also helpful when talks turn to contracts. "Many producers will provide the contract for a specific production. We always recommend that people hire a lawyer to make sure that their interests are protected," says Wilson. "The guild can certainly talk to people and their lawyers about some of the business points and what our view is, as to things they should be looking for in a contract. Not all producers and theatres have contracts, and even when they do, sometimes people find that they don't want to use them. Certainly for our members we can provide samples, which are a good place to start, in terms of what they would be looking for in a contract, and it's a starting point for their negotiations with a producer."

One main function of the contract is delineating exactly what happens to a script once the particular production is completed. "Certainly our contracts specify what the ongoing rights are after the production is over," Wilson continues. "In all cases, the production rights revert to the author. The author and the producer may negotiate a future interest for the producer following the producer's production, and the contract will define what that interest is and how long that lasts. But the author still controls the property."

Wilson says that, while directing one's own work is the best way to protect a writer's artistic vision, most playwrights prefer not to do so, and subsequently must trust their collaborators. "In most cases the existing system with the collaborators works fine. I think that some people would have no interest in directing the work as a way to maintain control of that. But because theatre is so inherently collaborative, you need to be comfortable with the people with whom you're working. That's why you get approval over the creative team-so that you are theoretically working with people who may be willing to share your vision or at least understand it."


Keeping in contact with those collaborators and dropping in on rehearsals are two ways to accomplish that goal. "Certainly the writer should stay in touch, and that's the best way to make sure that what's happening accords with his approval. If the playwright can't be there, phone calls are good. A writer should always be able to go to rehearsals and casting sessions. Even if you can't get there every day, getting there from time to time is better than not going at all, because obviously the only way you can really tell how something looks is to see it."

If a playwright is not present during most of the rehearsal period, and returns to find line changes or cuts made without having been consulted, Wilson suggests that discussion within the artistic staff needs to happen immediately. "If lines are being changed or cut and the writer is not being told about it, he should absolutely get on the case right away. He should begin talking to the producer and director immediately about that. Maybe it's just going off the rails conceptually, or it isn't really working, but you need to tell the director what doesn't work and why. Everybody needs to work together to make sure what results is what everybody intended to result."

Screenwriters usually have the luxury of preproduction periods on their films, where everything can be planned out and even storyboarded before filming begins. That same opportunity is rare in the world of theatre, due to budget constraints and time limitations. So Wilson stresses that all parties need to constantly communicate before work on a play or musical starts. "I think writers and the creative team have to have an ongoing dialogue about what the vision is, and what everybody sees happening. That way they will keep the other people who are working on the project in the loop as to what they're thinking."


To legally protect his work, a playwright should apply for a copyright, according to Wilson. "People should always file for copyright registration with the U.S. Copyright office, because if there is a copyright problem later on, that's really the best evidence. In addition, in terms of just making sure that the words are being said as they're written, people need to show up and attend rehearsals and pay attention. If it's being done out of town, they need to send a friend to a performance. People need to be vigilant to guard their rights, but they also need to remember that they are in a collaborative experience.

"Sometimes, problems may be so bad that the production is cancelled. But if the difficulties are due to a difference in perception, I would hope that people can work them out and come to an understanding about what the appropriate tack should be. So it's really a matter of continuing to communicate, and making sure that people are listening to each other."

Writers can contact The Dramatists Guild of America for membership by calling (212) 398-9366; or you can download a membership application from their website, .


The subject of writers' rights came up recently at the Pen & Brush 2000 Playwrights Conference in New York City. Headed by chairperson Eloise Neiderkirchner, the three-day event was very informative, covering topics that concern writers, such as working with artistic directors, polishing a troubled script, and understanding the critics' point of view.

The seminar that dealt with the subject of playwrights keeping their words and work from being mishandled was titled "Swimming with Sharks." Led by moderator Bernice Lee, the panel was comprised of playwrights/librettists Ilsa Gilbert, Bob Griffiths, and Morna Murphy.

National award-winning playwright Griffiths has had varying degrees of success with his productions in the past, and stated that communication is the key to a healthy relationship with directors and producers. "I've worked with good and bad collaborators. The main thing is to get it all on the table right at the beginning. There are no handshakes-you need to talk things through, so everyone understands what they are doing. If you make it clear up front and leave nothing to chance, it will probably go a lot better. As well intentioned as everyone is, everyone has an agenda, and while it may have come about with the best of intentions, that agenda may not be yours."

Griffiths also warned against falling into the trap of star casting for the sake of drawing attention to your production. "The trap, of course, is this: The reason you get the backing is specifically because a particular actor or actress is going to be in the play-if he or she is not going to do the play, you won't get the backing.

"What do you do? One thing is to be prepared-luckily, when we faced such a situation, we were. We had all our legal work done, we had all the contracts done, the rights agreement with the producer was solid, and we could have closed the show at any time. We chose to go with a bastardized version of the show just so it would get up, but it didn't run for very long at all, because it was a mishmash, and the critics discovered that."

Ilsa Gilbert, whose plays and musicals have had more than 55 productions, reminded the writers in the audience that their work is what initially sparks any production. "Writers sometimes get lost in the shuffle. But without the writer, generally speaking, nothing is going to be happening on that stage. It takes the writer to create the work in the first place. If it's a musical you may be collaborating with a composer, but usually it's the writer who comes up with a concept and has written the libretto. Certainly the director, the musicians, and the performers depend on you.

"It starts with the writer. And no one can change the writer's play without the writer's permission. That is one of the reasons I'm a member of the Dramatists Guild: Someone can't walk roughshod over someone else's work."

Morna Murphy, who has written and directed over 100 plays, recalled, "My very first play, the director replaced an actor with someone who was totally wrong for the role. I called the director up, but he just said, "It's going to be done that way.' At the end of the weekend, I pulled the play. I put all the legalese I could muster into a letter and stopped the production."

In defense of creative collaboration, Gilbert later added, "Usually in the theatre many people are involved. Be open to reasonable suggestions about changes, because it is a cooperative arrangement if you are working with other people."

Lucy Komisar is a theatre critic who writes for New York Theatre Wire ( and also for the American Reporter ( in a section called "Opening Nights." She, too, spoke at the Pen & Brush Conference, heading a seminar regarding playwrights and the Internet. Komisar recommends that playwrights use the available technology to do their research on rights, resources, and other issues, and in particular guided writers to the website "There's so much information on the Internet today," she explained. "It's still hard to find certain things, so the challenge becomes organizing and getting what you need."

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These are just some ways in which a playwright or librettist can keep creative control over his project. Consult the websites and resources mentioned above to keep informed about this ever-changing issue. One thing is sure-whether it be on the artistic end or the legal side, writers need to fully protect their rights and interests, so that their original vision remains true.