How Should We Publish & License New Plays In An Online World?
The #RightsWeek Series on HowlRound: What is the state of intellectual property? What are the rights of theatre artists and new work? In this series, Samuel French, Inc. asked four professionals in the theater industry to share their thoughts on this subject. (Please note that the presented opinions are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of Samuel French.)
Mike Lew is a Playwright-in-Residence at Ma-Yi Theater Company through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about his residency experience here, and learn about the impact of the program at large here.
Between the National New Play Exchange and Kanjy, we now have two brand new searchable new play databases where playwrights can upload their scripts and enter a few parameters about their work (genre, cast size, and casting breakdowns), so that producers can use those same parameters to find new plays for production.
The theory of change behind these databases is that new play curation is inefficient, and that producers are having a hard time finding scripts that suit their needs. These databases can step in to provide more access to plays and more powerful ways to sift through the work. I’m not quite sure I agree with the theory. While I think the databases may be useful for schools and small companies, at the highest level I question whether access to plays is really the rate-limiter behind getting more plays to production. Rather I think the dialogue between producers and playwrights is limited and opaque and inauthentic, leading to misspent efforts all around.
Nevertheless these databases are still in their infancy, so they could very well represent a powerful new advocacy tool for playwrights. I’ve been asked to consider the risk of piracy when it comes to these new technologies, and this was certainly a concern at a recent Dramatists Guild of America event surrounding the National New Play Exchange. Several playwrights voiced the concern that if they uploaded their scripts online, someone could download their work and produce it unauthorized.
I don’t really share their concern. To me the biggest risk of piracy today is a pervading culture of complacency when it comes to respecting copyrighted works. If you want to produce a play, you need to obtain the rights for it. As an industry, we’re not doing a good job getting that message out or policing offenders. Since theater is a live art form, to me there’s nothing about digitization that intrinsically makes piracy easier. Unlike the music and film industries, where digitization (and the attendant problem of piracy) has had a vast and industry shaking effect, I don’t anticipate the same thing for theater. As a friend once said, the worst piracy tool of the century is the photocopier.
In fact digitalization is actually making licensing easier than ever before. In the old days, to license a play you would have to call up the publisher, request the rights to a play, mail in a check, and then wait for an approval certificate by mail. Today you can license a play online with your credit card. So really the only excuse not to license a play is just willful ignorance of copyright laws!
To me what’s really interesting about these new play databases is what’s going to happen to the concept of a “finished” play. Under the publication model, when a play gets published at a traditional publisher like Sam French, the paper copy becomes the standard manuscript. The writer must—kicking and screaming—commit to a “finished” version of the script, and all subsequent productions must adhere to that version. But with the new online databases, playwrights can upload a version of their play and then upload subsequent revisions. Authors are in essence self-publishing works-in-progress. If traditional publishers similarly commit to publishing full manuscripts online, what’s to stop a playwright from wanting to upload a new version? If that’s the case, then what is the distinction between a database of early-draft “unpublished” plays and a database of finished “published” ones? All of a sudden, a new play starts to look less like a finished manuscript and more like a living document.
[Side note: I’m wary about the fact that the National New Play Exchange features downloadable PDFs, but not because I’m worried about online piracy. I’m just worried that people might download an outdated version of my script, which is why I’d prefer an in-application reader system as opposed to a downloadable system.]
Inevitably, the database camp and the publisher camp will draw ever nearer. When that happens, I’ll be curious to see how we as an industry can agree upon a standard for locking a digital script, such that a digital script holds the same sense of permanence we now vest in a paper copy. But these are really age-old problems, not digital ones. Shakespeare had multiple errant versions of his manuscripts floating around in the world. He’s probably also had his fair share of pirated productions.