It was only a few weeks ago that Samuel French was engaged in a much-talked-about battle for artists’ rights. The Broadway musical Hands On A Hardbody received its Texas premiere at the Houston-based Theatre Under the Stars, and author Amanda Green attended opening night. What followed is now well-documented by theatre media: drastic changes were made to the script by Bruce Lumpkin, the theatre’s artistic director and a prominent figure in the American musical theatre scene. Amanda (nor her agent, nor her publisher) was not contacted about these changes. Worse still, Amanda was told that the changes made her musical “better,” which is, perhaps, the most frightening thing an author—someone who has sacrificed time, resources, and emotional energy toward the creation of their work—can be told.
What transpired is now musical theatre history. After many conversations with the theatre and author, and unsuccessful attempts to mediate the conflict, Samuel French issued a “Cease and Desist.” Theatre Under the Stars was forced to shutter their production. While the decision to terminate the license may have seemed bold for some in the theatre community, internally at French it served as an important reminder as to why we do the work we do and how important it is that we remain alert and steadfast in our defense of authors’ rights. Community-wide, it sparked much online discussion (Howard Sherman’s blog post on the issue received over 16,000 views) about the line between playwright and director and where the line between ownership and director interpretation becomes blurred.
The Hands On A Hardbody case is only a single example of why our community needs to come together for a broader discussion on the rights of playwrights and theatremakers. As a play licensor, we face piracy and rights challenges on a daily basis and see a broader need across our industry for education and discussion around intellectual property and the theatre. Thus, Samuel French and HowlRound have partnered together to create #RightsWeek: Identifying & Sharing Your Intellectual Property, a week of articles and panels that examine a variety of topics surrounding the creation and ownership of work. Occurring throughout this week, we’ll be exploring issues surrounding the ownership and licensing of devised work; new, digital models of publishing; rights and ownership between collaborators and developers of new plays; and how piracy has changed in the age of online sharing.
Our goal for the week is, of course, to generate discussion between theatrermakers, but also to raise awareness about rights violations in our industry and to explore how old models of protecting artists are changing. Samuel French, in our almost 200-year history, has never seen a world where access to a script can be almost instantaneous, and with the creation of e-publishing and script sharing platforms (e.g., Kanjy, Indie Theater Now, the forthcoming New Play Exchange), the time is ripe to explore concerns surrounding new media. Another byproduct of the “mix-tape era” is a rehearsal room that’s never been as innovative and collaborative; designers, playwrights, and directors are working more closely than ever to craft theatrical happenings that blur lines between traditional stage performance and interactive, multimedia experiences. How does ownership break down for these team-driven creations? Is it possible to license a theatrical event?
#RightsWeek is also about education. Alongside many of our other publisher/licensor colleagues, Samuel French works passionately to connect new plays and musicals to a new generation of theatre lovers, as well as to introduce classic plays to new audiences in creative ways. This new generation of theatre lovers are born into an environment of immediate access, and with that comes energy, possibility, and entrepreneurship. More than ever before, we are seeing younger theatre artists hungry to put their own stamp on new plays. All this is encouraging, of course, but as a publisher and licensor we have a duty to make sure the new crop of artists knows about the legal and industry rules of licensing, the importance of licensing a work, and even more dire, how piracy negatively impacts our community as a whole.
Now for the logistics of the week:
#RightsWeek will consist of two components: articles by various members of the theatrical community to be posted daily on HowlRound and livestreaming panels on a variety of topics concerning intellectual property and ownership.
Our week of articles will be kicked off by theatre writer, director, and activist Isaac Butler, whose Monday essay “Defining Piracy (And Fighting Against It) In Today’s Theater Industry” attempts to identify the scope and breadth of the piracy issue.
Our second article, “The Battle of Artistic Acknowledgment: An Ongoing Education,” will be by SDC-member and director Amanda Friou. It recounts her experiences directing for a university—and subsequently losing control of her direction once her contract expired.
Wednesday’s article, “Protecting, Distributing, and Monetizing Your Work Online” by Sean Patrick Flahaven of Warner Chapell Music Publishing, is educational; he’ll be discussing the bold new world of web-sharing and the online posting of artistic property.
Finally, on Thursday playwright and copyright defender Mike Lew questions the impact of new digital play-sharing platforms on the art of playwriting in “Going Digital: How Should We Publish & License New Plays In An Online World?”
The second component of #RightsWeek is our industry panels, which will be held in various locations around the New York City-area.
Our first panel, “Owning Your Work,” examines copyright, playwriting, and collaboration, as well as questions about director and designer contributions to new plays. The panel will be moderated by theatre writer and advocate Howard Sherman, and will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, July 14th at New Dramatists, located at 424 West 44th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues.
Our second panel is titled “Sharing Your Work” and explores licensing and the decision whether or not to license a theatrical creation. Dramaturg Morgan Jenness will be moderating, and the panel will be held on July 15th at 6:30 p.m. at The Lark Play Development Center at 311 West 43rd Street, 5th Floor.
Wednesday’s panel focuses on “Publishing Your Work” and will examine traditional models of publishing as well as new, digital ways to distribute plays and musicals. This panel will be moderated by me (Amy Rose Marsh) on behalf of Samuel French, and will be held on July 16th at 6:30 p.m. at The Dramatist Guild, 1501 Broadway, Suite 710, in the Frederick Loewe Room.
Finally, the week will culminate with Thursday’s panel on “Piracy in the Digital Age.” Moderated by Isaac Butler, this panel will examine the extent of the theatre piracy issue, how piracy has been effected by the rise of the internet, and ways to combat piracy in the digital age. This panel will be held at the Samuel French offices, located at 235 Park Avenue South, 5th Floor, on July 17th at 6:30 p.m. There will be a reception to celebrate #RightsWeek to follow.
All panels are open to the public and there is no RSVP required. Additionally, all panels will be live-tweeted via #newplay and #RightsWeek and livestreamed via HowlRound TV. You can follow @MrSamuelFrench, @HowlRound on Twitter for more information.
Now for our gratitude: #RightsWeek wouldn’t have been possible without the brilliant brains (and resources) of our colleagues. New Dramatists, the Dramatist Guild, and the Lark are all trailblazers for playwriting advocacy and have extended to us their spaces and hearts; we are happy to have them as partners in our fight to make the world safe and lucrative for playwrights. We also have to thank all our industry panelists and moderators for sharing with us their stories and experiences. They’ve given their time to an important cause, and we hope they are aware of the valuable contribution they’ve made toward protecting artists’ rights and creating a space where intellectual property concerns can be addressed. For their producing expertise, enthusiasm, and general hospitality, we also (and by that, I mean the marketing, legal, and editorial teams at French) need to thank the Samuel French staff, who will be manning the events, ushering, and making sure our panels go off without a hitch.
Lastly, we also need to extend a warm thanks to HowlRound for the genesis of this incredible idea and driving the discussion (whatever your stance) on the issues surrounding artists and rights. We’re proud to consider them a valuable ally in our quest to protect artists and their livelihoods.
By fostering education and discussions about ownership and intellectual property—where licensing is going, where it’s been, and how we can band together to protect our artists—we are creating a climate where healthy art-making can thrive: artists get paid, healthy collaboration can occur, and more important still, artist of all levels—professional, amateur, and otherwise—learn to respect each other’s work. Here at Samuel French, a company whose legacy spans the invention of theatrical licensing and evolves into the forefront of the digital age, we’re constantly excited about the future of theatre, where new plays and musicals will take us, and ways to energize the industry. We hope you’ll consider joining us for what is sure to be an invigorating week of conversation.