Some of the best movies were based on plays, including My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Birdcage, and Glengarry Glenn Ross. Even Casablanca, a cinematic classic, was based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s. So do playwrights sell the copyrights to their plays?

Playwrights sometimes sell copyrights to their plays, but a more common practice is to license the script. This way, the playwright keeps the copyright and earns royalties when the play is performed.

Copyright and entertainment attorneys charge $200 an hour because copyright law is complicated, and most playwrights aren’t aware of how many revenue streams they could be giving up if they sell the copyright to their play. This article will explain what playwrights do to keep the copyright and make money from their work. Make sure to consult a lawyer before acting on any information contained in this article as we are not legal professionals.

What Is a Copyright?

Copyright is a collection of rights the writer of a work is entitled to. This means that if someone performs or plagiarises your play without entering a prearranged financial agreement with you then they might be breaching your rights.

Copyright law, however, is more complicated. For example: 

  • Is it okay for libraries to check out books without breaking copyright? 
  • Are parodies violating copyright? 
  • Is sharing music with friends through a peer-to-peer system against copyright laws?

A copyright owner can be the playwright, but if the work is done for hire, such as a script written for a movie, it will typically be copyrighted to the movie production company or the studio. In the case of works written while someone is employed by someone else, the copyright can be owned by the employer.

Finally, copyright is different from trademarks, which are those words or phrases for products. Both are protected by law, as are patents. A few things are not subject to copyright, namely book titles, names of businesses, and pseudonyms.

Benefits of a Copyright

The benefit of copyright laws is that others cannot use the play without the copyright holder’s permission. There are two parts of the original copyright:

  • The manuscript
  • The author

Unlike a patent, a playwright does not need to file for a manuscript to be copyrighted. 

As soon as it is finished, the work is copyrighted. Until 1989, writers had to place the copyright symbol and the date when the work was created on the manuscript.  

Authors no longer need to place the copyright symbol on their manuscripts. As long as they can prove when the play was written, the playwright of a piece has immediate ownership of all copyrights, and they lose them only if the copyright expires, or they give it up.

Writers who self-publish often register their work with the Copywrite Office, but most authors let a publisher handle that task. 

But playwrights are encouraged to register their plays. If your play is copyrighted, you control whether a play can be modified based on a director or actor’s suggestions. Also, any changes you approve belong to you.

Length of Copyrights

How long a work remains under copyright has changed for the benefit of the writer. As long as the piece is under copyright, others cannot use it without permission. Only after copyright ends does your work become public domain, where anyone can use it for free.  

The concept of copyright exists in the first article of the Constitution. Clause 8 of Section 8 gave Congress the right to establish laws for limited copyright.

  • Initially, the copyright length was 28 years—14 years initially, with an additional renewal.
  • In 1831, the length was doubled—28 years and one renewal of the same length.
  • In 1976, the period was again extended—to 75 years (or an author’s life plus 50 years).
  • The last addition to copyright law (in 1998) extended copyright length to 120 years.

If a playwright is offered to sell a play, they should factor in the length of copyright given up. Once the copyright is sold, any additional income on the play goes to the new holder.

Most Playwrights Lease Their Plays

In the theater, scripts are generally not sold but leased. After the first successful production of a play, the playwright will attempt to have his play licensed by an agency such as Theatrical Rights Worldwide.

Two other licensing organizations are Samuel French and Dramatist Play Service. Recently Samuel French was bought by Concord Theatricals, which also publishes written and recorded music.

A playwright will attempt to apply to have his play licensed by one of the agencies. Then, when a theater wants to put on a production, it pays a licensing fee, which gives them the right to use the script for a set period.

The licensing organization pockets some of the fees to pay for its expenses, and the playwright receives the rest. The size of the theater, the length of the production, and the prestige of the playwright affect the fee.

Getting a Play Licensed

It is rare for a play to be licensed by a first-time playwright. Most licensing companies accept plays that have been produced on stage. Therefore, the first step for a playwright to get their script licensed is to get the play on stage.

  • Submit: The next step is to submit the play to an agency. The competition is fierce, even at agencies that focus on plays for high schools or church groups. Each agency has a list of what they want to see before they consider a script.
  • Wait: Next, a playwright waits for a response, often for months. Agencies are overwhelmed with scripts, and accepting them is one of their duties.  
  • Write: While waiting, playwrights work on other scripts or submit the scripts to competitions.

Some smaller licensing agencies will consider workshopped or read scripts. A read script has been read on stage, usually with a small audience. Workshopping plays can happen in a university setting, often as part of a residency or weeklong seminars.

Selling a Copyright

Playwrights rarely sell copyrights because it makes no sense from a financial standpoint. 

Once the copyright has been sold, the playwright cannot make additional money from the script. Instead, the playwright contacts an attorney to negotiate with a studio.

If a movie producer wants to use a play, the playwright can negotiate that the production can buy the rights to use the play as a basis for the movie, or the writer can write the script.  

Should a director contact a playwright, it’s vital that an attorney specializing in copyright law be involved. Although the concept of copyright sounds simple in theory, a copyright and entertainment attorney knows what should be negotiated so a playwright earns as much money as possible.