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All you ever wanted to know about copyright
- but were afraid to ask!

We want to video our next show. Are we allowed to do this?

The short answer is "No". There is practically no chance that you can do this legally.

We don't want to sell videos commercially, so why not?

Because the licence holders with whom you have a contract to perform the play only hold what are called "grand rights", which means the right to give a live performance of a whole show. The 'film rights", under which videoing a show would come, have almost always been sold to some other organisation and the people who signed your contract cannot give you that permission.

So who has the film rights?

For most American shows, the film rights are held by American film or television companies, and even if you were able to trace them, they would be almost certainly likely to refuse. Weinberger have tried to trace the film rights for Sweeney Todd which has not yet been filmed, but it has been shown on TV, so the video rights have been allocated. Societies who have applied for permission have been refused.

In addition, if the British licence holders gave you permission, even tacitly, they also would be breaking the law and could, like the society involved, be sued for enormous damages.

So we can never video a show?

If the show is owned outright by the licence holders - and this is a very rare possibility- they may give permission for ONE archive copy to be made on payment of a fee of approximately £50.00 plus VAT, but you would not be allowed to make multiple copies.

I have seen companies advertising they can video our shows. Are they able to do this?

Legally, no. They will probably tell you they do have a licence to video private functions but a Private Function Licence is just that. It is issued on behalf of the M.C.P.S. and covers such events as weddings, presentation events and events like that and allows copyright material to be included in the soundtrack . It does not allow filming of shows or public functions. Don't be fooled, videoing your show is not allowed.

What about a sound recording of our show?

Exactly the same laws apply. Without permission from each individual copyright owner or his/her agents, you may be liable to legal action.

What about shows that are out of copyright, like Gilbert and Sullivan?

If you use hired orchestral pans, you would have to ask the owners of that copyright. If your own MD arranges the music, and allows you to record, you would have to check with any professional musicians, including all members of the Musicians' Union, for they have a right to refuse you permission to record their performance, or to charge for it.

You will see by all this that you would have to start well in advance, if you wanted to get permission to video a show - and the same rules apply to sound recordings, too.

Does all this apply to pantomimes?

Probably not all of it - but you would have to get permission from whoever holds the film rights. If they haven't been sold, then you would have to get permission from the author - and remember, all the rules about professional musicians apply, too, and then of course, there are the songs you put into your pantomime! You would have to trace all the lyricists and composers to get their permission.

Are there any shows we may be able to get permission to video?

You might be able to get permission to video a show that has not received a professional production, if you cleared it with the composer, lyricist, arranger, etc., and with any professional musicians performing on the video.

What exactly is "copyright"?

Copyright is the exclusive right of an author, composer, etc., to do certain acts in relation to his/her work. If anyone else does any of those acts without permission, there is an infringement of copyright.

This means that, when you sign a contract to do a show, you are agreeing to do it as written, and all you can do is give a live performance of it. If you make any changes to the libretto, script, or music, without permission, you are breaking the law.

Copyright lasts until 70 years after all involved in the creation of the play or musical. Are dead. Even then, copyright can be extended by Act of Parliament. It is interesting to note that, in many other countries, copyright lasts up to 100 years after the creators' death. We are now aligned with the other countries of the European Union, copyright has been extended from 50 to 70 years and revived copyright exists for many shows that were formally out of copyright. (See the article on Revived Copyright).

What is the legal position when we do excerpts from a show, in a concert, for example?

You cannot perform an excerpt from a show or play without permission, even to an invited audience. In general, you may perform "Songs from the Shows" without permission under certain conditions:

  • You may not perform more than 25 minutes of songs from any one show.
  • You may not wear the costumes associated with the show - that means that if you want, for example, to do "The Farmer and the Cowman" from Oklahoma! you may not wear "Western" type clothes.
  • You must perform the whole, or most of the concert on a fixed set, which is not the set appropriate to the show(s).
  • Scenic effects must be limited to the use of either a single prop and/or a backcloth or a piece of scenery, or lighting effects, not based on the work from which the songs are taken. 

In this case, performing rights are payable to the Performing Rights Society. The Hall or Theatre is usually licensed for this.

What about old songs that are very old and almost certainly out of copyright?

The music may be out of copyright but lyrics may have been written recently or updated, so that copyright will now exist on the whole piece. In addition, the piece may be a modem arrangement of an out of copyright work. This is why you almost certainly may not record or video Gilbert and Sullivan. It is the musical arrangements that may cause a problem.

The dialogue of some of the older shows is very dated. Is it OK to bring it up-to-date?

The short answer is, "No." You can, however, sometimes get permission for minor adjustments to be made. If this permission is granted, however, it does not mean that wholesale rewrites will be allowed. All too often, when dialogue is altered it is not for the better. If a producer does want to make major changes to a musical or play, and, in so doing, alter the structure of the piece, the question really should be asked, "Why bother doing it in the first place?"

What would happen if we were to alter dialogue or music without permission?

You may be lucky and not be found out. However, you should realise that the rights holders do employ representatives to travel around the country top watch shows that are licensed. You may be certain, that if you have altered, in any way, the show you have been licensed to perform, that show will be cancelled. If this should happen to your society, you will have no redress for any losses you may incur. Indeed, what could then happen is that your society will not be granted a licence to perform any other show held by the company who issued the licence for the show that has been cancelled.

A further point to consider is that, in extreme circumstances, the performing rights licence can be withdrawn from the theatre itself which would mean that the theatre would have to close. I know of no theatre management that would allow such a situation to arise. It is your show that would be closed.

Who is it takes responsibility for a show's presentation?

Ultimately it is the society committee who must take responsibility. It is up to the members of the committee to ensure that producers and/or musical directors do not alter a show.

What about concerts? Can we perform excerpts from a show?

Well, yes and no. You can certainly perform an excerpt from a musical show provided that:

  • a. the venue has a P.R.S. Licence
  • b. the excerpt is not representative of the show: i.e. not in costume
  • c. is not staged so as to represent the original show
  • d. does not exceed 25 minutes