Rights and Copyright

One of the many questions you should ask yourself when putting on a show is “Do I have the right?”

By this, we mean the right to put on the performance, the right to use the music, the right to use any images, designs, choreography, etc. Basically, the right to use anything in the production that you didn’t create yourself.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines Rights as “the legal authority to publish, copy, or make available a work such as a book, movie, recording, or work of art”. The other term you will have heard is Copyright – which the Canadian Intellectual Property Office defines as “the exclusive legal right to produce, reproduce, publish, or perform an original literary, artistic, dramatic, or musical work”. So when you are asking for the rights to do something you are asking for the “legal authority” to include that “work” (script, music, image, etc) in your production. You are asking to enter into a relationship with the owner of the rights, a relationship where you both get something. You get the right to use their work, and they receive something in return – usually a fee (royalties), but could just be credit or something else. A contract makes that relationship official (and legally binding!). Read more on our page on Intellectual Property.

Not securing rights to something is illegal as copyright is secured by the Copyright Act of Canada. Not only are civil penalties of thousands of dollars possible, but criminal offences could be determined, with hefty fines and potential jail time.

Public Domain

If the work is in the Public Domain, it is free to use as much as you want. You do not need to ask permission or secure the rights. Use it as it is, change it up a little, make massive alterations – it’s completely up to you. The tricky part is figuring out what is in the public domain. The term refers to creative works to which no exclusive intellectual property rights apply. It may be that the copyright (or trademark or patent law) has expired, was waived at some point, forfeited, or never received copyright protection in the first place.

Why would a copyright expire? When you create something, in general that work is automatically protected by copyright laws the moment you create it – but not forever. The amount of time it has protection varies from country to country. In Canada, up until recently, it was for the lifetime of the creator and then for 50 years following their death. With the signing of the Protocol of Amendment to the Agreement between the United States of America, the United Mexican States and Canada (commonly called USMCA), the basic term of copyright protection in Canada increases by 20 years. That means that creative works don’t enter the public domain until 70 years after the death of the author. Canada has 2.5 years from the ratification of USMCA to enact this change. As of April 2021, copyright protection in Canada is still officially 50 years after the author’s death, but you should always confirm before assuming something is in the public domain.

Fair Use vs Fair Dealings

Another scenario where you don’t need to enter into a contract with a copyright owner is in a situation where Fair Dealing applies. This is not to be confused with the US term Fair Use (and unfortunately there is a LOT of confusion around this). In the US, Fair Use allows the copying of copyright protected material for a limited purpose, based on 4 factors:

  1. The purpose and character of the use
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount or substantiality of the portion used
  4. The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the work

If you’re interested in these, you can look them up for more detail, but the main argument you may hear from people wanting to use copyrighted material is based on the third factor – the AMOUNT of the portion used. “I’m only using a little bit” may be a defence in the US under Fair Use but it is NOT under Canadian law.

We won’t get into the nuances of Fair Dealing here, but the Copyright Act of Canada (section 29) states that it is for the purpose of research, private study, education, parody, or satire. That’s it. Even within that there are specific details – it can be complicated and extremely risky to rely on Fair Dealing, as the consequences can involve hefty fines and, in extreme cases, potential jail time. In other words, unless the material is in the public domain, assume that you have to secure the rights.

Securing Rights

The creator of an artwork has the rights to the work they have created. Gaining permission to use that work involves finding out who has the license to distribute that work and, where relevant, paying the fees related to obtaining that license. This process ensures that the creator of that artwork is paid the appropriate royalties for the work they created.


If you are trying to secure the rights to a previously produced script, the first thing to do is find who licenses it. If the script is published, the info you need is often stated at the front, on the copyright page. Most often the playwright uses an organization or agent to manage the rights for them, but sometimes you need to work directly with the playwright.

Here is a list of the most common licensing houses:

If you don’t have the script, or the script you have doesn’t list who to contact for the rights, try one of the following:

  • Connect with the producer of a previous production to see who they contacted to get the rights
  • Reach out to one of the licensing houses to see if they have insight
  • Go online and try to find the agent of the playwright (websites like Doollee have lots of info)

If you are trying to produce a script that hasn’t been produced yet, or hasn’t even been written, you will need to negotiate directly with the playwrights (or their agents) to discuss the terms of writing the piece (e.g. what the timeline is for writing the drafts, any terms around workshopping in advance of production, etc), alongside a licensing agreement for public presentation . In many cases they will already have a template of an agreement that they can send you. If they don’t, PGC has good template agreements that they have created for their members.

Situation where the script has been developed by a group of artists – including but not limited to; the cast, the director, the designers, the choreographer, and others – is called a Collective Creation. Collective Creation was extremely popular in Canada in the 60s and 70s. In a Collective Creation, all participants generally split the revenue equally. As with everything, there are variations to this, but in general everyone shares everything equally, including decision making about future productions. This is because everyone in the collective is considered an equal business and legal partner. This can get complicated – in instances where there is disagreement about how to move forward, productions can stall. As a result, it is incredibly important that everyone in the collective agree on methods of conflict resolution. While everyone may be the best of friends, those friendships can be sorely tested if a clear path towards conflict resolution is not discussed right at the very beginning. Canadian Actors’ Equity Association has a contract called the Artists’ Collective Policy which governs Collective Creations for Equity members.


Trying to secure the rights to music can be quite tricky because there are multiple layers that factor into the deal, including:

  • What kind of rights are you asking for?
  • Are you using a recording or performing it live?
  • How prominent is the song?
  • Is it being used in marketing?

If you are interested in new, original music, you will contract directly with the composer or their agent. The type of info that will be relevant here is how much music is involved and how you’re going to use it. For example, is this a full musical to be performed live? If that’s the case, you’re looking at a full commission agreement (following steps outlined in the ‘script’ section above) with advance fees and a royalty . Another example would be for one or two original songs, or maybe some background music. Typically a fee per song or a lump sum amount for all the music created is standard. You will need to clearly state how the music is to be used in your contract (e.g., is it ok to use it in marketing material?) and what happens if the production is remounted or presented again on a larger scale than the music was originally commissioned for.

Where things get interesting is when you want to use previously produced music. Previously recorded music has two sets of rights involved: Publishing Rights and Master Rights. Publishing Rights are the rights retained by the creators of that music, the people that wrote it. Master Rights (sometimes called Master Use Rights) belong to the recording company that created the recording. In the simplest case, both rights are managed by the same company. For example, the song ‘You Send Me’ by Sam Cooke has both the Publishing Rights and the Master Rights managed by ABKCO Records. You would contact them and they would generate two separate agreements with you. But often it would be multiple organizations, such as in the situation with the song ‘Piece of My Heart’ by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns. The Publishing Rights are shared equally between Warner/Chappell Music Inc and Sony Music Canada Inc. The Master Rights are managed by Sony Music Canada.

However, if you don’t want to use a recording of the song but instead would like to perform it live during your show, In Canada, this is most commonly licensed through SOCAN — other organizations may be ASCAP, BMO, SESAC, etc. In venue agreements, you will typically see a SOCAN (or other PRO) fee that you are paying for your live performance. The venue (or in some cases, the renter/performer if that is how the venue operates) will report on the music played so that the appropriate rights holders receive their dues - here is an example SOCAN form that is typically used in live performance venues.

If you want to do your own recording of a pre-existing song, that means you would need to secure the Publishing Rights. Because the Master Rights only deal with the recording, they would not be needed in this case.

As you can imagine, it can be quite complicated to sort through all of that. In the example above it is stated that ‘Piece of My Heart’ is by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns. That is often the first question you will have to answer: Who has the Publishing Rights? This song was made famous by Janis Joplin in 1968 but was originally recorded by Erma Franklin in 1967, and it has also been recorded by many others, including Faith Hill (1994) and Melissa Etheridge (2005). The reason this is important is that you need to know who wrote it (for the Publishing Rights) and which recording you want to use (Master Rights).

To find this information, start with looking at the credits on the recording you want to use. Publishing and Master Rights are sometimes listed there. Some of this information can also be found online on sites like AllMusic. If you are stuck, you can always reach out to Entandem, which is the company formed when SOCAN and Re:Sound merged. Entandem is the company in Canada that deals with music rights, and they have a database with a lot of Publishing Rights information. However, Entandem is not set up to address all your music rights needs. To understand why, you have to know the difference between Grand Rights and Small Rights (sometimes known as Small Performing Rights).

Grand Rights are the dramatic performing rights, which covers musical theatre works, operas, ballets, etc. These can encompass many copyrights, including the music and the libretto. That means that when you license a musical, you get the rights to everything, including the music, the lyrics, and the book. But included in Grand Rights, along with musicals and operas, are songs put into a dramatic setting where there is a plot, narration, costumes, etc. So that means that if you want to include the original recording of ‘Piece of My Heart’ in your play, you need to get the Grand Rights (this song is written into the script of THE HEIDI CHRONICLES which means that every time this script is produced, the producer has to secure the Grand Rights to the song). Endeavour, and other organizations like it around the world, do not administer Grand Rights. They only deal with Small Rights, which is when individual songs are played in concerts, or in a lobby, stadium, etc. If you are doing a concert, connect with Entandem and they will help you license it.

Finally, there are two other rights that may be relevant to you: Synchronization and Mechanical. If you are only using the music in your live stage production, you won’t have to deal with these.

Synchronization Rights are needed when you want to use music as part of a soundtrack for audio-visual media, such as film, tv, video, commercial, web casts, etc. That means if you are hoping to use the song in a trailer that you would like to host on YouTube, you need to secure the Synchronization Rights when you are talking to the publishers. Synchronization Rights are also needed if you have done a cover of a song, and want to release it with a visual. For example, if you performed a cover of ‘Piece of My Heart’ at a concert hall (where the licensing was already covered by the venue, since it was a live performance), and you wanted to post a video from your live performance, you would need to secure the Synchronization Rights to legally post & publish you audio-visual cover.

Mechanical Rights are the rights to reproduce the music onto CDs and DVDs. As an example, if you do a concert and have secured a license through Entandem, you still have to talk to the publishers about Mechanical Rights if you want to make a CD recording of it.

This whole process can be very time consuming, and there is no guarantee that the various rights holders will get back to you, especially in a timely manner. If you are securing the rights independently, give yourself as much time as possible to secure the rights. With everything online now, it is very difficult to fly under the radar. One option to consider, if you have the budget for it, is to hire a music copyright clearing organization to look after it for you. Companies such as Easy Song Licensing are great for figuring out the exact type of licensing you need for a song, what music publishers are involved in the licensing, and then they will do all the negotiating with said publishers. Since these companies have pre-existing relationships with the publishers & licensing companies, they often have an easier time getting a response & entering negotiations.


When you want to use a photograph, there are a number of places where you can secure the rights:

  • Directly with the photographer
  • Getty images
  • Newspaper publisher

It is important to be very clear about the intended use of the image and where it will be used. For example:
Will it just be used in the production or do you intend to use it for marketing purposes as well? If you are using production stills in the marketing, will the image be seen in the background?

Additional resources

  • Providing credit for artists work is important. Read "Design Credit Where It's Due" on American Theatre's journey to acknowledging designers when using production photos for their articles.
  • 8 Facts about Canadian Copyright Law is a must-read, especially the section on Moral Rights, which protect the author of a work in three ways (Paternity, Integrity, and Association).
  • 10 Myths about Canadian Copyright Law debunks many common misinterpretations of Canadian copyright law, including Fair Use and the protection of ideas under law.
  • Music Rights Tip Sheet from the Associated Designers of Canada (ADC) is a free, downloadable comprehensive guide to the different types of music rights in Canada.
  • Do you require legal support, or have more specific questions on copyright and Intellectual Property for artists? Check out our list of Legal services for answers!



Created by admin. Last Modification: Wednesday December 1, 2021 12:37:37 EST by kpalm.