A Question of Rights

So I had a very interesting day.  Spent the afternoon watching Othello performed at my local library (more on that in a separate post).  Knowing I’d be surrounded by Shakespeare geeks I of course wore my Mercutio Drew First shirt.  More people recognized and appreciated the reference today than ever before, I’m happy to say. Where it gets even more interesting is after the show when I stopped off at the nearby pizza place, and the guy behind the counter recognized and appreciated the line as well.  He’s the first to actually read it out loud, including the ShakespeareGeek.com part. He said he wanted one, and like always I told him, “Come by my site and buy one.”  So maybe he’ll stop by, and see this.  Hi, pizza guy! Anyway, that started up a conversation when he told me that he and a friend had spoken of producing a show of their own, and daydreaming about doing RENT until they realized just how much it would cost to procure the rights to such a show.   We spoke of public domain stuff, and he asked if I knew of a repository where fledgling producers could learn more about works that are available in the public domain. I thought this an interesting question, because while we often hear about novels and poetry that are public domain via projects like Project Gutenberg, I’m not sure where I’d point somebody who wanted to read public domain plays.  I’m assuming that the rights are the same – if it’s more than X years past the death of the playwright, at least in the US, the work falls into the public domain? And once that happens, anyone who wants to do a show could get the script and just do it? I am assuming all of that, and do not know it for a fact.  Hence, as I told pizza guy I would, I’m asking.  Surely one of my more theatrical followers, someone who has produced a show or two of their own, would know the answer.  How do you find out what shows are available, and what do you need to go through to actually do it?  If this guy did want to pursue attempting RENT, how do you figure out where you’re supposed to go about asking for the rights and cutting the check?

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2 thoughts on “A Question of Rights

  1. I'm not sure about the public domain pieces, but I do know where to go for other shows. First you find out who owns the rights and then you see if the show is available. There are different conditions for professional productions than for amateur ones. Music Theater International (http://www.mtishows.com/) owns the rights to RENT. There's also Tams-Whitmark and R&H Theatricals. I produced Rodger's and Hammerstein's Cinderella this past April under an amateur license for about 5K including rights, royalties, and rented scripts and scores. That's not including what we spent for lights, costumes, sets, microphones, special effects, advertising, and printing.

    Plays are more affordable and I've licensed shows from Heuer, Samuel French, and Dramatists Play Service. These shows sell scripts (usually under $8 per copy) and charge a $60-$80 royalty per performance.

  2. Copyright law is complicated and varies by country, although there are international agreements. A pretty safe bet is that if the author has been dead for at least 70 years, the work is in the public domain. However, that is being conservative and other works will be considered public domain by previous copyright holders, so you can always check. Wikipedia has an interesting article on copyright law.

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