The director, choreographer, and set, lighting and costume designers of the original Broadway production of “Urinetown” have begun to pursue claims against two midwest theatre companies for allegedly copying their work without authorization.
Playbill reports that in response, the producers from one of the theatres has filed a lawsuit against the Broadway team.
The Broadway team's complaints arose after Choreographer Brian Loeffler won an award for his work on a production of Urinetown at Chicago's Mercury Theater. Loeffler also choreographed the other accused production, performed by the Carousel Dinner Theatre, in Akron, Ohio.
The Broadway team's union, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers provides legal services to its members in such situations. Ronald Schechtman, the lawyer for the team, sent a letter demanding that Loeffler formally return the awards he's won for his work on the show, and that the creative teams for both midwest productions provide a detailed accounting for their revenues, from which “an appropriate license fee and damages would be determined”. The Broadway creators threaten court action if these demands are not met.
In response, the Mercury Theater sent a letter denying the Broadway creators' claims, and the Carousel Dinner Theatre has filed an action in U.S. District Court, seeking a declaratory judgment that its production was substantially different from the Broadway production, and did not violate any laws.
Copyright protection for elements beyond the script and music of a theatrical show is an unsettled and ambiguous area of law. There have been at least two previous, high profile cases involving Broadway productions later reproduced elsewhere. The first inolved a Chicago theatre's 1994 production of “The Most Happy Fella”, which rented sets created by scenic designer Gerald Guttierez for the Lincoln Center. The Director sued, alleging that the Chicago production used so many details of his work, including dialogue changes, and restructured scenes, that it amounted to plagiarism. That case settled before trial, and the terms of settlement are confidential.
Some time later, Director Joe Mantello sued the director and producer of a Boca Raton, Florida production of “Love, Valor, Compassion” alleging that 95% or more of the production copied his original Broadway direction of the McNally play. A pretrial settlement was reached, with the proceeds being donated to Mantello's union.
If the Carousel theater's lawsuit proceeds through the courts, it may be the first case to adjudicate the issue of who owns the creative elements of a production. If the Broadway creators win, it will firmly establish that stage direction can be copyrighted..
On a side note, there's another interesting wrinkle that will eventually need to be addressed: Under almost every playwright's agreement for the production of a show, the playwright is guaranteed ownership of all material added by the producers (or, presumably, by employees and contractors of the producers). Meanwhile, Directors and Choreographers claim ownership of their contributions. So, if the Director and Choreographer's contributions amount to “added material”, don't those elements really belong to the playwright? (Assuming the playwright's agreement pre-dates the hiring of the Director and/or choreographer). Wouldn't a producer's grant of such rights to the Director or Choreographer constitute a breach of the Production Agreement?