What is Licensing?
Over the past ten years, I have had the privilege of working as the Director of Marketing at Music Theatre International. But before my time with the company, my awareness and understanding of licensing was limited. I understood the general principles behind intellectual property and copyright, but I didn’t realize theatrical licensing was such an important part of my early exposure to theatre in general. In addition to seeing many professional Broadway productions, I participated in and sat as an audience member for many school and community theatre productions – all made possible through performance rights granted by theatrical licensing companies.
Seeing a licensing company’s name and logo in a program for the show I was about to experience was about the extent that I thought about this aspect of the industry. I figured the school or theatre had to pay for the rights to do the show and also pay the company for the scripts and scores used by the performers. While this is true and an integral part of the process, there is so much more to licensing than the commerce between the producing organization and the licensing company. A theatrical licensor is the steward of a theatrical property, acting on behalf of the creators/authors of a play or musical. This means ensuring that every single performance of an author’s work is performed exactly as that author intended so that the artistic (and legal) integrity of the work is maintained and protected. As a creative person who has dabbled in writing and performing myself, it gave me a great sense of purpose and gratification knowing that I was helping protect another artist’s work and building a legacy by exposing it to performers and audiences around the world.
So how exactly does licensing work and what is a theatrical organization signing up for when they license a musical from MTI?
Grand Rights and Royalties
It all starts with a Grand Right. A Grand Right is the intellectual property / copyright retained by the creators of a show that allows them or their duly appointed representatives (in this case, MTI) to decide who may perform the show, where it may be performed, how it may be performed and how much will be charged for the privilege of using their work. A Grand Right reflects the totality of a musical property in question – it covers everything from the first note of the overture to the last bow in the finale (and all the dialogue and songs in between).
If an organization wants to perform a song from a musical in a concert or cabaret setting, that’s known as a small right and is controlled by a different type of licensor. But as soon as there is any dialogue, costumes or staging, it becomes a Grand or dramatic right because said performance includes more than simply singing a song – it contains elements of the full dramatic work created by the author.
For Grand Rights, MTI acts on behalf of an author/rightsholder by granting a license to produce the show. We then collect a fee, known as a royalty. MTI will charge material rental fees along with a security deposit, but the main fee is the royalty which we collect on behalf of our authors. Royalties are the way authors (usually a bookwriter, a composer and a lyricist) are paid for the use of their intellectual property.
Performance Licenses and Making Changes
One of the most frequent issues MTI deals with is communicating with customers about making changes to a show.
Built into each and every performance license is specific language that governs how the copyrighted work must be presented. MTI’s responsibilities include enforcing copyright law as it pertains to Grand Rights (e.g., prohibiting changes to the show, monitoring unlicensed productions, etc.), as well as protecting certain productions from competition in geographical markets.
Sometimes a director or producer may believe that some changes are required to make the show work for their community or theatre. They may want to make “minor adjustments” to a show (such as changing the gender of a character, changing the name of a town to give it local significance, changing a line of dialogue, adding songs that appeared in the movie version of the musical, etc.).
If an organization wishes to make a change, no matter how big or small, MTI requires the organization to provide a detailed, written account of the suggested edits along with a strong rationale for doing so. MTI maintains very good relationships with our authors and rightsholders, so depending on the show, MTI will present an organization’s request to the authors to see if an accommodation can be made. In some cases, authors/rightsholders may have a standard response if the issue has come up before. Whatever the case, the authors’ decision is final and without obtaining prior written permission from MTI, any changes violate the authors’ rights under federal and international copyright law.
It is always best to ask for permission, not forgiveness. MTI strives to educate its customers and make organizations aware of these stipulations in our contracts so that less time is spent on enforcement and more time can be spent celebrating customers’ productions.
Jason Cocovinis is the Director of Marketing for Music Theatre International – one of the world’s leading theatrical licensing agencies, granting theatres from around the world the rights to perform the greatest selection of musicals from Broadway and beyond. Founded in 1952 by composer Frank Loesser and orchestrator Don Walker, MTI is a driving force in advancing musical theatre as a vibrant and engaging art form.
MTI works directly with the composers, lyricists and book writers of these musicals to provide official scripts, musical materials, and dynamic theatrical resources to over 70,000 professional, community and school theatres in the US and in over 60 countries worldwide.
MTI is particularly dedicated to educational theatre and has created special collections to meet the needs of various types of performers and audiences. MTI’s Broadway Junior™ shows are 30- and 60-minute musicals for performance by elementary and middle school-aged performers, while MTI’s School Editions are musicals annotated for performance by high school students.