A group of Canadian students let their enthusiasm for the Tony-winning Broadway musical Hamilton get them into hot water this week, and now the Dramatists Guild has weighed in,
The students at Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts in Scarborough, Canada (near Toronto) wanted to do their own version of Hamilton so badly that a reported 150 of them rehearsed, costumed, lit and staged several numbers from the show based on material from the Platinum-selling cast album. As reported by the CBC, approximately they posted videos of their performances on YouTube, hoping to show, by their sincerity, that they should get special dispensation from the producers of the Broadway show to do a full sanctioned version of the show.
The CBC quoted Ann Merriam, who teaches performing arts at Wexford, as saying that after she saw the show on Broadway she became determined to let her students do the show. “After seeing it the first time, I said to myself, 'I'm going to see it again, I'm going to tell everyone I know to see it, and I'm going to introduce it to my kids and school and have them perform it,”
Unfortunately, despite their enthusiasm, the version they created was completely unauthorized and violated the show's copyright. Hamilton is one of the most in-demand shows across North America right now, and the producers are being very careful about who gets to perform the material and in which venues. Stock and amateur rights are not yet available for community productions. Parodies aside, groups are not permitted to perform copyrighted material without advance permission.
After a claim of copyright infringement was filed, the videos were removed from YouTube June 16.
The Dramatists Guild, which is the playwrights’ union, released the following statement late June 17:
A STATEMENT ON COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT OF THEATRICAL WORK
We understand that the desire to perform a song or sequence from a theatrical work comes from a place of passion for the source material. In particular, when young people encounter a piece of art that inspires them, they naturally want to study it, learn it and try it on for size. It's one of the ways young artists grow to find their own voices. Still, it is important to recognize that unauthorized use of dramatist's copyrighted work is illegal.
Authors of dramatic works (including playwrights, librettists, lyricists and composers) own their copyrights, but very few dramatists writing for the theatre make a living at it. In exchange for retaining ownership and control of their words and music, they have foregone the benefits of unionization enjoyed by other groups of artists (like directors, designers, choreographers in the theater, as well as TV and film writers). Dramatists have sacrificed to keep control of their work and so, consequently, their copyrights mean a great deal to them.
When their work shows up in unauthorized productions, or on YouTube videos, it's not just a matter of lost revenues. It is an infringement on the very nature of the dramatists' authorship and a violation of their right to control their artistic expression. Even the non-commercial public use of their work by well-meaning fans, either on the internet or in amateur productions in their communities, can damage a show's value in various markets, and it is a copyright violation under most circumstances. Most importantly, it undermines an author's prerogative to decide when, where and how their work will be presented.
Therefore, we at the Dramatists Guild, on behalf of our 7000+ members and dramatists around the world, urge theater fans to respect the creators they admire by following the longstanding laws that protect authors. That's how the artists you care about earn a living, enabling them to keep writing more of the work you love.