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This Week's Law and Video Podcast features a theatre question

Podcast Logo,On this week's Law and Video Podcast I was asked a theatre-related music question:

Our community theater is producing a
Christmas show that will use other people's songs.
What is the best way to find out who owns this classic
music? Many of them are religious hymns which, I
understand do not hold any copyrights. Please clear
this up?

This seems like a simple question, but it has layers.

First, if it's just a christmas concert or pageant, where the songs are not part of telling the story… then it falls under the so-called “small” public performance rights which are administered by the Peforming Rights Societies ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC here in the US. other countries have other societies.

Now, all you need to do is contact these societies (both, unless you're sure all the songs are in one- or the other's catalog) (you can check that online) And obtain a basic license for your kind of performance. The fee will be based on the size of the venue, number of performances, and ticket price. Also, if it's a nonprofit, the fee will be different than a for-profit venture.

Now, if the songs DO form an integral part of the story line of the show, we're talking about something called “Grand Rights”, and you have to obtain written permission from each composer or publisher. Again, it's easiest to start by visiting the ASCAP or BMI website and searching for the title of each song… that will give you the information about the publisher that administers the rights… then contact them, and negotiate a license….

OK, finally the issue about “classics” and religious hymns. First of all, there are plenty of “Classics” that are still protected by copyright. “White Christmas”, “The Christmas Song” etc., so you'd need permission for those. Also, just because something is a religious hymn, doesn't mean it's not protected… it really comes down to when it was written. Copyright protection lasts a long time. So each title requires some study. A good rule of thumb is that if the song was written prior to 1921, it is probably NOT protected. OTHERWISE, go through the whole analysis.

Obviously, this whole process takes time, so next year, start this process in September, OK?

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