Drama and theatre teachers often find the confusing nature of copyright expiration a minefield to deal with. Common questions include:
- Under what circumstances can I copy the entire script of a well-known play for my students without breaching copyright?
- If I found the script on the Internet, does that automatically mean it is out of copyright?
- What exactly does public domain mean and how do I know when a work belongs to this category?
- Do I need to pay performing rights for our school play or concert?
Well, hopefully, this post will answer some of these questions.
1. Public Domain and Expired Copyright
In relation to a play script, ‘public domain’ is when this script falls out of the intellectual property law known as copyright (usually due to expiration) and becomes free to use and copy as you wish. Being in the public domain literally means the public now owns the work, not the author. For drama and theatre teachers, the following ‘elements’ enter the public domain (and hence the script of the play):
2. U.S. Copyright Law
U.S. copyright is the most often cited. The law used to state copyright expired 50 years after the author’s death. But back in 1998 this law changed, extending copyright to 70 years after the author’s death. So, technically, no works fell into the public domain due to expiration for 20 years between 1998 and 2018. This can be quite confusing, so read this quote to understand it better:
Translation for drama and theatre teachers:
U.S. law used to state plays published before January 1, 1978 were under copyright protection for 75 years. 20 years have been added to that figure stating all plays published before January 1, 1978 are now in copyright for 95 years.
Plays published after January 1, 1978 used to be in copyright for 50 years after the author’s death. 20 years has been added to that figure as well, making all plays published after January 1, 1978 are under copyright until 70 years after the author’s death.
In 2019, copyright expired for all plays published in the U.S. before 1924 (prior to January 1, 1978 + 2019 is 95 years after 1924) and on January 1, 2020 works published in 1924 expired. So, the current rule is, all works published in the U.S. before 1925 are in the public domain. No wonder copyright is such a minefield to understand!
Here’s a useful fact sheet from the U.S. Copyright Office:
3. Australian Copyright Law
To make things relatively easy, most countries follow the U.S. copyright law. To keep us on our toes, most is not all, so if you have a play published in Australia, for example, you would need to double check this country’s copyright laws. To make things even more confusing, many countries have different copyright expiration laws for different mediums, and on top of that, copyright laws are constantly changing!
Because the home of The Drama Teacher is Australia, let’s look briefly at the law in relation to plays and copyright in this country:
As with the U.S., Australia used to have a law stating the death of the author plus 50 years, yet the change to make it 70 years occurred only recently on January 1, 2019.
Here’s a few useful fact sheets from the Australian Copyright Council:
- Duration of Copyright Fact Sheet
- Education: Copyright Fundamentals Fact Sheet
- Education: Concerts, Plays and Musicals Fact Sheet
4. U.K. Copyright Law
Thankfully, the U.K. has the same law as Australia and the U.S. in relation to copyright expiration (works entering the public domain) for literary, dramatic, musical or artisitc works:
Here’s some useful fact sheets from the for UK Copyright Service drama and theatre teachers: