You Don’t Own Me: Fun Facts About Musical Copyrights

Say you’ve written a musical. You have a solid draft and you’re ready to take it to the world…

A FILM PRODUCER approaches you and offers to BUY your musical script. You get a nice chunk of change upfront and bid goodbye to your project. It may make it to the screen, it may not. It may be what you wrote, it may not. That producer OWNS your work.

A THEATER PRODUCER approaches you about your next project. She offers a small standard option payment and asks you to commit to months of rewrites and rehearsals for little or no pay. However, the show that ends up on stage is true to your vision and when it’s a hit, you hit pay dirt forever. She RENTED your work, but you still own it.

Why is this, you may ask?

Well, when the copyright laws were passed they stated that independent writers own their copyright even if the piece is commissioned or work for hire. Before this could be signed into law, however, the movie folks from LA got in there and created an exception (there were 8 exceptions actually but theater wasn’t one of them!). This exception allows movie producers to legally buy scripts outright and take over the copyright as a matter of course. Theater didn’t do this; so theater producers can basically only rent the material. The only exception for theater producers is to hire writers as actual employees in which case the producer can own the copyright. Of course, how many producers do you know who can keep a large staff of writers on hand? Yeah, me neither.

All that being said, I don’t know which is a better deal for a writer.

With film, you get the up front payout without the risk and work of further development. But you don’t necessarily get the rewarding experience of seeing your version of your musical through to fruition and and the larger payouts when it does well.

With live musicals, you share in more of the risk with the producers and are in the trenches along the way but you are rewarded with a show that you control as well as the eventual financial rewards.

Somethings to think about…


  1. I would like to thank Brisa for her enormous amount of work in informing writers of their rights and making suggestions for production.

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