When applying for rights, you are asking for authority to use copyrighted content from the creator. In theatre and in this guide, we are specifically talking about performance rights. If you would like to perform something that has been created by someone else, you need to pay for the content and get the approval of the creator. By disregarding payment and/or approval of the use of copyrighted content, you are not only breaking the law, but you are overlooking artistic morals. Acquiring rights do not only protect the creator of content, but also the user.
Royalties are the payment that is sent to the creator when their content has been used (and you have the rights to use it, see above). Royalties can either be sent to the creator directly from the user or can be sent to an agent who takes payment on behalf of a client.
This is advice and instruction to producers who are looking to acquire Theatre Performance Rights. This is written from the perspective of a Canadian theatre practitioner although it includes the process of finding rights in other countries as well. This resource will help independent or emerging producers navigate the process of searching and applying for rights, to distinguish amateur rights from professional rights, to understand rates and contract regulations, and to identify responsibilities and protocol in order to foster a successful and collaborative relationship between the producer and playwright.
The term “agent” will refer to whomever is handling the rights. The agent may be the playwright, their actual agent, or a service organization.
If you are reading this, it is assumed you have found a play you would like to produce. Many producers want to know if the rights are simply available before officially applying for rights, however most agents and playwrights can’t confirm availability until you tell them YOUR details. There are a few things that you need to know about your future dream production before seeking the rights.
Question #1: Where are you performing the play?
You need to reach out to a venue and ensure it is available before acquiring the rights. You do not have to pay for the venue at this time, but having a location is crucial for applying for rights. If the venue changes after you have secured the rights, you can always inform the agent of this change to see if a contract adjustment is possible.
A contract adjustment such as this for amateur or semi-professional productions shouldn’t be a problem unless the house size has changed dramatically or the location has moved to a new city.
In terms of house size, you either need to stay under 150 seats for amateur or over 150 for semi-professional. For semi-professional rights, rates may go up if venue is changed with a different house size.
If the venue has changed and it’s in a different city altogether, the availability of the rights may need to be reviewed to make sure that there are no other productions within a 100-mile radius of your new location.
Venue and theatre company are usually secure and confirmed when applying for professional rights, so this won’t be a difficult question to answer at this stage.
Question #2: What will be the dates of performance?
When you are deciding on venue, you will need to look at when it is available and when your company/collective will be ready to perform. You will need to identify these dates in order for the agent to know the availability.
You will need to apply for rights about 8 weeks prior to your opening night. This means that you are giving the agent 2 weeks to process your request and respond with (hopefully) a contract. You will then need to send a deposit in immediately, as it is usually asked for one month prior to your opening performance.
You will also need to inform the agent of the number of performances involved in your production. That will determine the total amount on your invoice.
Keep in mind that any performance with an audience should be included on the contract. A dress rehearsal for the public is not a free performance for you.
Question #3: Is your production considered Amateur, Semi-Professional, or Professional?
The agent will be figuring out rates and contract details based on your company or collective’s status. You will need to know what kind of a production you are putting on before applying for rights.
These productions are usually done by community theatres or schools. Small independent companies and collectives can be approved for amateur rights as well. The rates for amateur companies are usually less than semi-professional and professional because the box office revenue is not expected to be as high. To be considered an amateur production, you need to meet the following requirements:
- The house size of the venue must be below one hundred and fifty. If you are in a large community centre but you do not expect to sell more than that, you may have the option of closing off the extra seats. If the agent agrees to this option, you will need to have the venue write a letter agreeing to sell no more than one hundred and fifty seats per performance.
- There may be no professional contracts in place for this production. Professional contracts follow the rates and guidelines set by PACT, PGC, CAEA, or NAC.
Semi-professional productions are calculated with the same rate as professional productions, but do not need to be engaging in any professional contracts. When an amateur group is producing a show in a venue for over one hundred and fifty seats, they may be considered semi-professional and will be presented with rates that reflect your gross box office revenue. The standard rate is 10% of box office revenue for the playwright (assuming 60% of seating capacity for attendance). These rates may differ depending on the play or the decision made by the playwright or agent.
Productions are considered professional when there are professional contracts in place.
Now that you have answered these three questions, you should be ready to apply for performance rights. Follow these 5 basic steps to find the rights holder of a play as well as to stay in line with the contract regulations.
STEP 1: Find the Rights Holder - a service organization that has published the play or serves the playwright as a union or guild
This can differ depending on what country that playwright is in. In Canada, you will check with Playwrights Guild of Canada. In other countries, there may be licensing agencies such as Samuel French for US and British playwrights or DALRO for South African playwrights.
There are usually Rights Request Forms on these websites. If not, you will either need to inquire about who handles the rights or go on a secondary search yourself.
Perhaps the playwright has a website with their agent’s information or their own contact information. If you can’t find a person to contact, ask an organization who represents the playwright or their publisher.
By reaching out to a representative organization, agency, or publisher, you are very likely to get ahold of the rights holder. You should then be on your way to receiving a contract!
STEP 2: Read and sign the contract
If your rights application is accepted, you will be sent a contract with an invoice. Read the entire contract three times and sign it. Make a copy for yourself and send the original back to the agent. This contract should be signed, sealed, and delivered one month before your opening performance. In many cases, your deposit (which is fifty percent of the total rights payment) will be due at the same time as well. The final amount is due one month after your closing performance.
The contract may say something about a late payment fee. Make sure your payment is on time or you can be in violation of the copyright law.
STEP 3: Consider the contract during rehearsals and pre-production
Producers have many tasks throughout the pre-production and production process. Losing sight of the agreement that the group has with the playwright can happen! Forgetting about the final payment can happen! This guide suggests that you put reminders in your calendar to review the contract and check in with the director so that the agreement is still in effect.
Do not make any changes to the script without written permission from the playwright. If this clause is disregarded, the playwright and agent may cancel the contract or charge an additional fee. If the contract is cancelled, then the production is cancelled. If the production is cancelled, there may be a cancellation fee.
Recordings of no more than five minutes of the production or dialogue during rehearsal is allowed. Any more than a five-minute recording of the playwright’s work needs to have written permission from the playwright. There may be an additional contract for digital use of the work.
The contract will direct you on how to credit the playwright on all programs and promotional material. Failure to do so can result in another fee to the playwright.
Step 4: Keep in contact with the agent!
If anything changes on your contract, you must update the agent. Dates, venue location, and promotional opportunities should all be shared with the agent, who will then share with the playwright.
Feel free to ask about complimentary tickets for the playwright and opportunities to have the playwright visit a rehearsal. Playwrights often want to be involved! If they don’t, the agent will let you know.
STEP 5: Close the contract
Once your production has ended, make sure to send the final payment to the agent for the rights.
If you haven’t yet, you will also want to send one copy of all printed promotional material. This ensures that the agent can cross reference the details on the contract with what you were offering to an audience. You are not under inspection, but the agent does want to make sure that the contract was adhered to so that there aren’t any issues that arise further down the road.
Agents and playwrights also want promotional material sent so that it can be added to a file for the playwright’s archives. This is your chance to be a part of their production history and legacy.
You can trust that once the full payment is sent to the agent, royalties will be paid to the playwright. The agent is usually the one who will take care of dividing royalties between co-creators and making sure that taxes are paid out properly to the artists.
Rates can change according to the playwright or agent’s decision, the length of the play, or the status of the play.
Playwrights Guild of Canada has their standard rates online, so this will give you an idea of what you need to budget for:
One-Act Full Length
$85 for the opening performance $100 for the opening performance
$70 for any subsequent performance $85 for any subsequent performance
If you are requesting performance rights from Samuel French or the playwright’s agency, then rates may not be presented until you officially request the rights. Requesting the rights does not mean you are confirmed to produce the play. You may still cancel the production after you receive the rates and availability.
If you have not signed the contract to your performance rights, you are able to cancel without having to pay a fee. Some agents do have a cancellation fee, but that only comes into play once you have signed the contract.
If you have signed the contract and you still need to cancel, contact the agent to see what your next step is. Samuel French allows cancellations up to 24 hours of the opening performance. Playwrights Guild of Canada does have a fee if the contract has been signed and a deposit has been sent it.
- Read your contract 3 times.
- Communicate with the agent.
- Respect the rights and wishes of the playwright.
- Get written permission for any script changes or recording of the play.
- Set reminders in your calendar to pay on time, check in with the director, update the agent, and invite the playwright to be involved or attend the show.
- Send in any promotional material to the agent for the playwright’s file.
More to come...