Local Theater Faces Stiff Penalties for Copyright Infringement

February 28, 2019
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Producing a Play Without Obtaining Permission From Copyright Holders Can Result in Significant Legal Penalties…

Producing a play without obtaining permission from copyright holders can result in significant legal penalties. In a recent copyright suit, Music Theatre International (MTI), which licenses musicals, was awarded $450,000 plus attorney’s fees by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. According to the copyright infringement suit, Theaterpalooza Community Theater Productions, Inc. failed to obtain the proper licenses for several of its productions.

Local Theater Faces Stiff Penalties for Copyright Infringement
Photo courtesy of Rob Laughter (Unsplash.com)

Copyrights and the Theater Industry

Copyright protection is available for “original works of authorship” fixed in any tangible medium of expression. With regard to the theater industry, the subject matter of copyright includes musical works, including any accompanying words; dramatic works, including any accompanying music; and pantomimes and choreographic works.

Under the 1976 Copyright Act, the copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, publicly perform, and publicly display the work. Accordingly, before performing a play, musical or other theatrical work, it is often necessary to obtain legal permission, typically in the form of paying royalties to obtain a license. The requirement applies whether you are a Broadway production, community theater, or local college.

Putting on a copyrighted play without permission can result in significant legal penalties. Federal copyright law establishes statutory fines for each act of copyright infringement, ranging from a minimum of $500 for “innocent” infringements to a maximum of $100,000 for “willful” infringements.

Copyright Infringement Suit Against Community Theater

A Virginia youth theatre is on the hook for thousands of dollars in copyright damages after allegedly presenting unlicensed and unauthorized performances of at least 16 well-known musicals, including Roald Dahl’s Willy WonkaMatildaSeussicalLittle Shop of Horrors, and Honk! MTI, a global theatrical licensing agency, filed suit after receiving no response to numerous requests that the community theater cease the unlicensed performances.

According to a recent court order, Theaterpalooza offers musical theatre classes and camps for children. In addition to charging tuition fees up to $600 per child, Theaterpalooza also charges admission to its final performances, typically $15 for adults and $12 for children. While the theater’s performances often feature well-known plays, it did so without obtaining authorization from the copyright holders.

The court order also concludes that Theaterpalooza was aware of MTI’s copyrights on the musicals as early as January 12, 2015 and continued to perform and advertise unlicensed shows for several years. Accordingly, the court found that Theaterpalooza “willfully infringed” on MTI’s copyrighted works. The order states:

As early as January 12, 2015, Defendant (Theaterpalooza) was aware of Plaintiffs’ (MTI) copyrights and that it was infringing on those rights. Defendant disregarded those rights and continued to perform and advertise copyrighted material. Thus, the undersigned Magistrate Judge finds that Defendant willfully infringed on Plaintiffs’ protected works.

Theaterpalooza has been ordered to pay $489,096.22, consisting of $450,000 of statutory damages, $37,563.50 in attorney’s fees, and $1,532.72 in costs. MTI announced that it plans to donate some of the damages to Jumpstart Theatre, a program created in part by MTI that brings theater programs to underserved communities.

Key Takeaway

A thorough understanding of copyright law is essential for content creators, such as musicians and playwrights, as well as those that later seek to produce or perform their works. While many older plays and musicals do not require licenses, determining whether material has entered the public domain can be complex. Given the potential penalties for copyright infringement, it is wise to consult with an intellectual property attorney familiar with the theater industry.

If you have questions, please contact us

If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, David Einhorn, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-806-3364.