The Ins and Outs of Rights and Royalties

A Christmas Carol – Keyano Theatre Company
Photo Credits

When you decide to produce a play, step one is to take a good close look at the first few pages of the script and find out who holds the production rights. Here are some of the names you will likely come across:

  • Samuel French
  • Playwrights Guild of Canada
  • Dramatic Publishing
  • Dramatists Play Service

Visit any of their websites and look for a link called Royalties or Licensing or Performances or Production Rights – that’s the general terminology, and it varies from site to site. Once you find it you’ll quickly be linked to a very easy-to-use form that you’ll fill out with the show information, along with things like the length of the run, the size of your theatre, ticket prices, and projected income from ticket sales (you can estimate between 60% to 80% capacity to arrive at this figure).

If you’d like to talk to them, you can always give them a call; their phone number is found on their website. Very nice people are standing by whose job it is to help you.

Click here for links to some of the major publishers, copyright boards, and more information on finding copyright owners.

Charges

Productions Rights are usually charged on a by-performance basis. For example, if you have a ten-show run and rights are $60 for the first show and $40 for all subsequent shows you’re looking at $420 plus GST for performance rights. Prices vary according to the popularity of the play, the playwright, and the professional status of your theatre. Princes range dramatically (no pun intended) – anywhere from $15 to $400 per production and even more in some cases. Some playwrights will seek a percentage of the box office – 10% of total ticket revenue is standard.

Timeline

When securing rights for a show you should begin the process at least five months before the show opens – and even that’s leaving it pretty late. It takes time to process, and if by chance you are turned down you’ll need to leave yourself time to come up with a plan B. You will also need to allow time to order scripts and have them delivered.

Scripts

When you get rights for a script, you should also be ordering enough copies of the script for all actors and crewmembers. If you obtain rights but do not proceed to order scripts you are essentially communicating to the publisher that you intend to illegally reproduce them (yes, photocopying scripts is illegal if you’re going to be using them for commercial purposes, which is what you’re doing if you charge admission to your show).

Community Theatres and School Productions

Amateur and community theatres usually receive reduced rates on production rights, though in the case of a hot, newly-published script this may not be the case. If a play is being performed in a school environment as part of a class project, with an audience of only the class itself or a small group of other students, then you don’t need to pay performance rights. However as soon as you invite someone outside the school community – including friends and family – then you must secure rights, even if you’re not charging admission.

Unpublished Plays

Unpublished plays require the same permission and payment as published plays. You and the playwright can write up your own contract outlining general terms for the production and payment that is entirely legal and binding. In Canada anything you have created is automatically copyrighted to you, regardless of publication. Whenever a play is used in a public context, permission must be obtained first, and payment is to be expected.

Production Stipulations

Many directors will engage in slight alterations to the play text – contemporizing dates, localizing geography, or updating popular culture references – however directors should be aware that it is expected that 100 percent of the text remain as is. Changes must be requested and approved in writing. In the theatre for young audience world, under the auspices of the collective agreement between Playwrights Guild of Canada and the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, there is a general clause that says profanity may be toned down for particular communities, and that permission in this instance will not be unreasonably withheld by the playwright. This only applies in the above circumstance, and permission still must be requested.

Some plays have very particular rules about how they can be produced. Playwrights can establish conditions of production with regard to cross-gender casting, songs that should/should not be used, re-working of act divisions, or any other element that they feel is crucial to the artistic integrity of his or her work. Many directors will choose to ignore stage directions – they should know that they do this at their own risk. It is understood, however, that production teams have some autonomy in matters of staging and blocking. When making a decision to ignore a stage direction a director should consider whether or not it is essential to the artistic integrity of the play.

Royalty-Free Productions

There are two ways to produce a play without paying royalties, the first being if the playwright has been dead for over 70 years (this is standard in the USA and the UK; at the moment Canada’s rule is still life plus 50 years, but it is expected that the next round of changes to the Canadian Copyright Act will adjust us to be in line).This rule states that copyright lasts for the life of the author, the remainder of the calendar year in which the author dies, and for 70 years following the end of the calendar year. After that, the work becomes part of the public domain and anyone can produce it for free. Shakespeare companies save a fortune on performance rights. Rights can get confusing when dealing with a play that’s been adapted from an older work. A Christmas Carol, for example, is in the public domain, however if you want to produce Tom Wood’s adaptation of it you need to pay royalties to Tom Wood. The only other way to produce a play without playing royalties is to write it yourself.

Music in Productions & Musical Revues

If you play a song in a show, that is to say as a background to the performance, while actors are acting, or even during a dance, you must secure rights from the recording artist who wrote/produced the song. In Canada, this can be done through an organization called the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN). SOCAN’s toll free information line is 1-800-557-6226, their licensing department is 1-866-944-6210, and their website is www.socan.ca. Some plays will specifically require a particular song – in these cases you have to seek rights for that song separately from production rights. Some playwrights will establish relationships with musicians so that whenever production rights are paid a percentage is automatically sent to the musician, however these relationships are not standard. If they exist, they will be clearly announced and laid out on the publishing information page of the script; otherwise, music rights must be sought separately.

You must also pay royalties for any music you play during pre-show, post-show, or intermission, though these rights can be secured generally (i.e. you don’t need to get them for each individual song) and on a yearly basis for a very reasonable price. Prices are based on the size of the performance space and audience capacity. To give a sense of cost, a 1400 square-foot theatre with seating for 145 people will cost approximately $150 per season.

If you want to perform a non-published musical revue (i.e. a selection of your favourite songs from early musicals, Stephen Sondheim, folk music) you also need a license from SOCAN. The lowest fee charged is $35. That would apply to performances where 100% of the ticket sales go to charity. For non-charity events, the fee is 3% of ticket sales. All you have to do is call the licensing department, an account is then set up for you and the paperwork is filled out. That simple. This license; however, does not give you performance rights for a full musical. You would still have to call the publishing company for that.

In the End, it is Always Better to Check

Obtaining rights and royalties can seem a daunting proposition for new producers, however it is neither as complicated nor as mystifying as you may suspect. Given enough time and appropriate financial resources, rights are only a phone call away. A good rule to bear in mind is that if you suspect you should be paying rights for something it’s best to check. Publishing houses are generally quite forthcoming with information and won’t take advantage of a situation to make money.

Break a leg!

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