Theatre Law

Theatre Law

Theatre is a challenging industry. Producers, investors, and creatives invest substantial time, money, and effort into each production. Our goal is to support theatre professionals and companies by helping them navigate the legal complexities that are necessary to make sure the show does, indeed, go on.

Who Do We Help?

Creative, technical, and business people must work together to develop a profitable and critically acclaimed production that will keep audiences returning to the box office. We represent a wide variety of clientele, including playwrights, directors, designers, musicians, lyricists, choreographers, actors, producers, agents, managers, investors, theatre owners, and others.

What Role Do Attorneys Play in Theatre?

There are legal issues impacting every stage of a theatre production, from acquiring necessary rights and developing the script, to casting, workshops, and previews, to the premiere and run of the show. Attorneys act as advisors, negotiators, and enforcers to ensure the parties have necessary legal protections in place to proceed with their goals. Lawyers may be hired as production counsel or general advisors, handling a wide variety of legal concerns or engaged to handle specific matters, such as intellectual property registration or contract drafting.

Are You Developing a Theatre Production?

Before an idea can evolve into a theatre production, an experienced theatre lawyer is needed to address a multitude of issues. These attorneys are called production counsel, and they act as the producer’s guide, advising him or her throughout the development process. Examples of the kind of guidance production counsel may provide include:

  • Acquiring rights from third-parties (ex. life rights, grand rights, etc.)
  • Advising on selection and formation of the legal entity or entities that will produce the show.
  • Preparing all producer, co-producer, and manager agreements.
  • Negotiating and drafting employment, talent, agent/manager, director, and consultant agreements
  • Handling venue, vendor, and union contracts
  • Obtaining intellectual property rights and enforcing them
Do You Need Help with Licensing Rights?

Most productions involve some licensing of third-party rights.  You may wish to obtain the rights to adapt an existing literary work or film for theatrical production, or you may wish to incorporate someone else’s music, lyrics, design, other copyrighted work, or trademark into the performance.  The production must obtain these rights or risk a claim of infringement, which can result in significant liability and fees.

Music is often a key component in many productions.  For instance, stage musicals can be adapted from movie musicals, and “jukebox musicals” (musicals that create a storyline around pre-existing songs, often written in the same era or by the same songwriter) have become increasingly popular.  In these cases, the underlying rights to the pre-existing material must be obtained.

Rights to publicly perform music are complex.  If someone wants to license music for public nondramatic performances, a small rights license is needed.  These are typically obtained through a “blanket license” from the major performing rights organizations (PROs).  “Nondramatic” performance is not defined in statutory law, but generally refers to instances where the music is not utilized to tell a story or as part of the plot.

When the music will be publicly performed as an integral part of a dramatic piece, a grand rights license is needed. It is only available from the copyright owner, which may be the composer, publisher, or other licensing agent for the work.  Unlike a small rights license, a grand rights license requires payment every time the music is used, which can make for a complex agreement.  Determining which kind of license is needed is complicated with costly implications, especially if the production is subsequently adapted for touring, regional, or other varieties of performances.

Are Your Intellectual Property Rights Protected?

Theatre productions have their own intellectual property rights to protect the story and accompanying music, lyrics, and choreography.  Under copyright law, an original work of authorship is automatically copyrighted when it is fixed in a tangible medium, meaning “it is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated.”  For example, a musical may be “fixed” when its music, lyrics, and choreography are notated or video recorded.

While copyright protection for original works is automatic upon fixation, registering a copyright offers significant benefits, including providing public record of copyright ownership, which enables the copyright owner to sue for infringement of the work and obtain statutory damages and attorney’s fees.  In addition, registration shows the validity of the copyright, and courts have held that registration within 5 years of publication of a work supports the validity of the copyright and creates a presumption of ownership.  As a result, it may be worthwhile to register all copyrights associated with the production to ensure the work is protected from infringement.


The theatre world is an enthralling, creative space that also requires legal and business insight to achieve success. Astute legal advice can mitigate risks, maximize revenue opportunities, and protect the production.


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