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Public Domain Plays Explained

Drama and theatre teachers often find the confusing nature of copyright expiration a minefield to deal with.

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 is in 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.

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 us drama and theatre teachers, the following elements enter the public domain (and hence the script of the play):

Plots, characters and themes from works of fiction (copyrightlaws.com)

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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 year’s 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:

We can blame Mickey Mouse for the long wait. In 1998, Disney was one of the loudest in a choir of corporate voices advocating for longer copyright protections. At the time, all works published before January 1, 1978 were entitled to copyright protection for 75 years; all author’s works published on or after that date were under copyright for the lifetime of the creator, plus 50 years. Steamboat Willie, featuring Mickey Mouse’s first appearance on screen, in 1928, was set to enter the public domain in 2004. At the urging of Disney and others, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, named for the late singer, songwriter and California representative, adding 20 years to the copyright term. Mickey would be protected until 2024—and no copyrighted work would enter the public domain again until 2019, creating a bizarre 20-year hiatus between the release of works from 1922 and those from 1923. (Smithsonian Magazine)

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 has 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 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.

Here’s a useful fact sheet from the U.S. Copyright Office:

Australian Copyright Law

To make things relatively easy, most countries follow the U.S. 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 that 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.

To make things relatively easy, most countries follow the U.S. 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 that 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:

Generally, copyright in a literary, artistic, dramatic or musical work lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years (Australian Copyright Council)

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:

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U.K. Copyright Law

Thankfully, the U.K. has the same law as Australia and the U.S. in regards to copyright expiration (works entering the public domain) for literary, dramatic, musical or artisitc works:

70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last remaining author of the work dies (UK Copyright Service)

In the public domain? Oh, yeah!

Here’s a useful fact sheet from the for drama and theatre teachers:

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