How Facebook and YouTube Help Broadway Licensing Companies Stop Illegal Shows

News   How Facebook and YouTube Help Broadway Licensing Companies Stop Illegal Shows
Recently, a war of words spilled out on the digital pages of Florida Theatre on Stage, a website dedicated to Sunshine State theatre news. They concerned a production of the musical Shenandoah by Delray Square Performing Arts. It had been mounted without a proper agreement with Samuel French, the longstanding play licensing house that handles thousands of scripts.

A frustrated Samuel French, having received no payments from Delray, resorted to sending a letter to the editor, dated Feb. 2, to Florida Theatre on Stage, protesting the production. The website printed it. “Are pirates in your town?,” it began. It ended with a plea for people to “not support this production,” adding, “to the actors and designers working on Shenandoah, know that you are working on an illegal, unlicensed, unethical production.”

Also printed on the site was a response from Gary Waldman, the artistic director of Delray. Dated Feb. 9, the long letter stated that the production had been called off mid-run. Waldman promised to make good on the monies owes in royalties. He also contended that no deliberate wrongdoing was intended, and detailed a litany of woes that had befallen him and the production prior to the spat with French.

Promotional art from the production
Promotional art from the production

“Please, please, please accept our apologies for everything we messed up,” the letter concluded, “even though so much of it was just from being in pure ‘freak-out’ mode."

While such responses from offending parties are common to licensing companies, the fact of the matter is that a theatre organization cannot legally announce a production without returning a signed production contract and a deposit. In addition, licensing companies do not send materials (scripts, scores, orchestrations) to organizations until a contract is received and payments have been made. This means that some theatre companies knowingly begin these unlawful productions with illegally photocopied scripts and scores without having a contract in place.

Executives at Delray did not reply to's email requests for interviews, and landline and cell phone message boxes were full.  Such disputes rarely play out in so public a manner. But that doesn’t mean they don’t occur, and occur often. The public is quite familiar with the piracy of music and film, owing to widespread media coverage of these ills. But the same phenomenon in the theatre is still relatively unknown.

“It’s always been a steady thing,” said Drew Cohen of Music Theatre International, the licensing agency that handles the rights to nearly 500 stage properties. “The percentage of evildoers may not have increased, but the actual number has,” owing to an increase in overall productions.

The reasons that unlicensed productions take place are varied.

“This happens quite a bit and sometimes it’s just a mistake on the producers part,” said Lori Thimsen, director of licensing compliance at Samuel French. “In many cases, especially with schools, where they’re working with a complex series of purchase orders and what have you, we will find that we have payments that are delayed. Others are groups who are not very savvy as to the process. Very often on contact, these groups will take care of that problem quickly.”

Others, however, are not so innocent in their intentions. “We live in a world where the credo seems to be that it’s easier to get forgiveness than to get approval,” she observed. “On that level, many people think, 'Well, it’s going to be expensive, let’s just go ahead and do it." And then, if caught, mea culpa, and we’ll see what we can do.”

“There are those occasions where it may be an innocent clerical error, but for the most part we find that is not the case,” said Cohen. “It’s hard to prove that something wasn’t ignorance, but we’re pretty skeptical of that.”

Sometimes the Samuel French and MTI offices are alerted to illegal stagings by the authors of the pieces in question. But mainly, the licensing organizations do the policing themselves. In the past, this meant combing through newspapers and publications for advertisements or write-ups of plays and musicals, and then matching the information against a licensing log to see if the production was in compliance. But the advances of the digital age have made such efforts much more efficient.

“Interestingly,” observed Cohen, “where other forms of media, such as music or movies or television, have been significantly hurt by the Internet, for live performances the Internet is our friend. While it does make it harder to prevent people from downloading materials without authorization, once they do download or obtain the materials and want to mount a production, the next thing they need to do is find an audience and they usually do so via websites or social media.”

“Facebook is a huge resource for this kind of information,” said Thimsen. “Almost anyone who produces has a Facebook page.”
Photo by Disney

YouTube is also a resource. Authors will find postings of videos of productions of their work, and they will inquire of the agencies whether the shows have been licensed. While Thimsen couldn’t say how much income authors lost annually from unlicensed mountings of their plays and musicals, she did estimate that, “currently, for productions that we have been trying to work with, it can be close to quarter of a million or more.”

Last spring, theatre songwriters took an independent stand to raise awareness of online sheet music piracy. Stephen Flaherty, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jason Robert Brown were among those who spoke to about it.

Thimsen also pointed out that unapproved productions can result in collateral damage. A legit producer interested in licensing a show may be discouraged by a nearby mounting of the same title by an outfit that did not pay the necessary fees.

Pirated productions are not limited to shows that can currently be legally licensed. Cohen pointed out that “a subset of the people putting on unlicensed productions are groups putting on shows that are not available for licensing even, such as Wicked or The Lion King, which was not available [for limited school production] until this year.”

While certain malefactors know exactly what they are doing when the go ahead with a show sans the needed paperwork and fees, Cohen believes a percentage of smaller producers just require more thorough edification on how things work.

“Educating our customers will go a long way toward reducing the problem,” he maintained. “If people are offered the information about what the rules are, they will do it the right way.”

He added, however, “I’m not naïve enough to think that’s all of them, so we still have to be vigilant.”

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