May 23, 2012 Gavin E Tameris


…You wouldn’t perform a copyrighted play without getting a license and paying royalties to the author, usually through a royalty house or agent. The same applies to copyrighted music…. A Benefit of AACT Membership

What and Why Is Copyright?

The Constitutional Provision Respecting Copyright: “The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” [United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8]

A part of the “Authors and Inventors exclusive Right” is to receive royalties for use of their “Writings and Discoveries.”

What is Copyrightable?

§ 102 · Subject matter of copyright: In general
(a) Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include the following categories:
(1) literary works;
(2) musical works, including any accompanying words;
(3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
(4) pantomimes and choreographic works;
(5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
(6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
(7) sound recordings; and
(8) architectural works.
“(b) In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of he form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.” [Title 17, USC Chap 1]

What are my responsibilities?

If any of the above copyrighted items appear in any part of your production (including pre-show, intermission and post-show), you need permission to use them and must certify this in your production materials, publicity, etc. Example statements: “Opening music, ‘Morning’ from ‘Peer Gynt Suite 1′ by Edvard Grieg © XYZ Records, Inc. 1977, used by permission of the © Holder.”; or: “Incidental music, ‘Peer Gynt Suite 1′ by Edvard Grieg © XYZ Records, Inc. 1977, used by ASCAP Community Theatre License.”

Permission to use copyrighted material is exactly that; it does not include the authority to alter it IN ANY WAY. Any change is a violation of copyright compliance (as many have found to their sorrow).

Penalties for Non-Compliance

Not petty: A legal injunction may be filed, your show can be shut down, and penalties from $750 to $30,000 assessed, “jointly and severally,” for each violation. In other words, anyone involved is liable.

Available Aids

Internet Sites

  • US Copyright Office: Title 17. The text of U.S. copyright law available here, which is title 17 of Copyright Law. U.S. Copyright Law and Related Laws Contained in the rules
  • Louis E. Catron; Copyright Laws for Theatre People A cogent and readable article.
  • ASCAP Website “An ASCAP license gives you the ability to use any of the 8.5 million songs and musical works created by ASCAP members and members of foreign organizations who are represented by ASCAP in the United States.”
  • AACT Website
    ASCAP is the oldest, largest, and foremost organization in the United States that licenses the right to publicly perform copyrighted musical compositions. ASCAP makes it easy to legally utilize music because it is a membership organization representing more than 400,000 songwriter, composer, lyricist, and music publisher members, provides an annual license at a reasonable flat fee, and doesn’t require submission of a list of songs to be played. In addition, the vast ASCAP repertory to which licensees have unlimited access – millions and millions of works – is listed on the ASCAP website so it is easy to determine if ASCAP handles a particular song.”

    “ASCAP’s Community Theatre license for AACT members covers the theatre for the AACT membership year at all its venues for copyrighted pre-show, intermission, and post-show music played by means other than live performers, such as CD’s and tapes. (The Community Theatre license does NOT cover recorded music DURING a play or music performed live, such as in a musical revue or a string quartet performing during a gala reception.)” [Emphasis Added]

    “The Community Theatre license year is September 1 – August 31. Theatres that sign up through the AACT office by September 1 will receive a 30% discount on the ASCAP license fee. AACT membership is required to receive the discounted ASCAP rate. Both membership and ASCAP fees must be received in the AACT office by September 1, along with a signed ASCAP license. (AACT member theatres that miss the AACT group deadline can sign up directly with ASCAP and receive a 10% discount.)”

    ASCAP Community Theatre License Agreement Q&A

    (License) 2011-2012 Rate Schedule

    AACT offers a discounted rate for ASCAP licenses purchased through them

    But note the ‘Emphasis Added’ disclaimer above that the Community Theatre license does not include music used DURING a performance.


How Do I Get Copyright Permission?

Refer to Louis E. Catron; Copyright Laws for Theatre People on the website cited earlier, at Authoritative websites for copyright information. He gives thorough guidance on how (and why) to get permission and the online resources you may use to help obtain it.

How Can I Research For Copyright Permission When I Don’t Know The Copyright Holder?

If you have some material that came to you without the copyright information included, you have some extra steps to go through. For example: You recorded some music from a radio broadcast that you think would be ideal to use in your production. Through the largesse of the Copyright law, that music was provided for your personal use, not to be played to a production audience; if you did so, you would violate Copyright. (The same principle applies to all the Copyrightable materials.)

You need to track the item back to the source (in this case, the radio station, which may maintain a playlist archive) to obtain the Copyright holder information that will allow you to begin the search for permission.