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How to deal with unauthorized changes to the text of a play or musical

I've been practicing as a theatrical entertainment attorney for over 20 years now. Recently, I've seen an uptick in the number of inquiries I get from playwrights, composers and lyricists who are concerned about the integrity of their material when produced by third parties.

They're talking about unauthorized “cuts” to the show.

We've all seen it. Your local theatre company has decided to produce a production of [Insert Title Here], but for whatever reason, the director has decided to cut a particular number, or worse, move it to a different place in the show.(yes really).

“What”, the authors ask me, “can we do about this?”

Fortunately, the answer is “Plenty”, but unfortunately, the most commonly proposed solutions are often distasteful to the authors.

Terms of the Production contract

Nearly every production agreement for a play or musical includes a provision stating that there can be no changes to the text, music or lyrics of the show, without the prior, written consent of the author(s). Doing so amounts to a breach of contract, and justifies (also in the contract language) immediate revocation of the license to present the production.

Stopping the Production

So, upon learning of unauthorized changes being made to a show, the authors have the right to actually stop the production from going forward. Typically, this is handled by the authors' entertainment attorney presenting the offender with a “Cease and Desist” letter demanding that the show be presented as written, or not at all. However, if the producer refuses to comply with this demand, the authors will need to file a lawsuit, and obtain a restraining order from the Court.

Obviously, this will do little to ingratiate the authors with prospective producers of the material, so playwrights, composers and lyricists are often loathe to seek this kind of legal action. It's about getting the work “out there”, they reason.


An alternate approach is to simply look the other way, and allow the altered production to proceed.

But, experienced entertainment lawyers will rarely advise a client to ignore offenses against the integrity of their work, since doing so can actually strip the client of his or her rights. Under a little known equitable doctrine called “laches”, a party who sits on his or her legal rights without enforcing them may later be prevented (the legal term is “estopped”) from pursuing a remedy.


So, what's an author to do?

Well, there's no substitute for good legal advice from an experienced theatrical attorney. It may be advisable to simply “authorize” the changes on a one-time-only basis, with a caution against further infractions. This kind of thing should be in a written agreement of some sort, and should include a provision transferring ownership of the changed material to the authors. Otherwise, subsequent productions wishing to make similar changes might lead to claims from the offender that the authors lack authority to permit them.


Some practical advice

Simply put, “You catch more flies with honey, than you do with vinegar.” The art of theatrical lawyering involves knowing how to deal not just with the legal issues, but also with the personalities involved. I've frequently managed to resolve difficult situations by being pleasant (as pleasant, at least, as a phone call from a lawyer can be), and by talking my own clients “down off the ledge”, so that cooler heads can prevail.


If you're facing a sticky situation, consulting an attorney familiar with your business is the logical approach.


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