Yesterday, I came across the article That's Show Biz (and a Lesson in Copyright Law)
in the New York Times. The article summarized a series of events that happened last week involving a student production of the musical "Chicago" at Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx, which is being performed this weekend. For those of you who haven't heard about this yet, the story goes as follows.
The school drama teacher, Anthony Cerrini, decided that the school should put on a student production of the musical. He reconstructed the book by taking dialogue from the Internet, transcribing some of the 2002 film, and then writing some on his own. (Already I'm wondering what he was thinking.) The school bought costumes and built sets, and for the past few months a student cast has been rehearing.
And then, when the advertisements for the show were sent out, the Samuel French company, which controls the licensing rights for "Chicago," very properly sent them a cease and desist notice. After all, the school had not asked for permission, had not paid fees to the copyright holder, and was putting up a production too geographically close to another production (which, in this case, happened to be the one on Broadway).
So what did the school do? They whined. To the press. Two days ago, the New York Daily News ran the article Stop the music!
, focusing on the poor kids who were crying their eyes out because all their hard work would be for nothing.
Now, I'm all in favor of going to the press if an injustice needs to be fixed. A few years ago, Stuyvesant High School went to the press when one of the two FedEx boxes of Westinghouse Science Talent Search competition papers that they had sent to Washington, D.C, arrived a few hours after the deadline. FedEx had picked up both boxes at the same time, and had guaranteed delivery by the deadline, but only one box made it in time. So when it looked like half their students' papers weren't going to be accepted because FedEx screwed up, the school administration went to the press. Public opinion threatened to go against both Westinghouse and FedEx, and so, in a stunning reversal for the first time in history, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search accepted the late papers. The next year, they changed their deadline rule, stating that if the papers were delivered by a carrier who guaranteed delivery by deadline, the papers would be accepted if a record proved that they had been picked up by the carrier within a reasonable amount of time beforehand.
I was fine with that turn of events because in that case, it was not the fault of the school or the students. But in this case, the mistake was precisely the fault of the school. The school principal himself , Robert Leder, even said that for the past 27 years they have never applied for a license when putting on a show. I'm boggled by this man's ignorance of copyright law.
And I'm boggled that public pressure got the rights owners to grant permission for "a single unauthorized, unlicensed performance at the school," as the Times put it. (On a side note, if they've given permission, how is it that the performance is now unauthorized and unlicensed?)
But I'm not just boggled. I'm appalled. I'm appalled that four City Council members and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum planned to stage a protest in front of the Ambassador Theater where "Chicago" is currently performing. I'm appalled that Samuel French is being cast as the bad guy in this case. And I'm appalled at the message this is sending to the students. They haven't learned the proper lesson here, that the copyright of artists and writers must be protected. Instead, they've learned the old adage that it's easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.
I'm also upset. I'm upset because I'm a writer, and I've had people also appropriate my work without permission. Now some people might take the side of the students, because they see how much money "Chicago" rakes in for its creators and wonder what the harm one little student production can do. Well, I've met people who have their plays licensed by Samuel French, and many of them rely on these license fees for a living. Most playwrights aren't raking in the dough, and they depend on these amateur productions for their bread and butter. A case like this makes it more likely that some other school somewhere will decide to put on a minor play without permission, essentially taking money from a playwright's pocket.
But I'm not just upset because I'm a writer. For many years I was a teacher, at schools that put on many theatrical productions a year. Every single drama department at the schools where I taught made damn sure to license the rights to plays and musicals before performing them. The way I see it, all the schools that do the right thing, that respect copyright law and apply for legal licenses, are being punished. The message being sent is that a school which flouts the law will be rewarded if enough people whine about it.
I am gratified by two developments, though. First, Joel Klein, the New York City schools chancellor, is going to send out a statement immediately to remind all the schools about intellectual property laws.
And second, in light of what Leder said about never having applied for a license before, Samuel French is going to look into the school's productions from over the past 27 years. As Charles Van Nostrand, the president of Samuel French, said in the Times, "I'm a little curious about what those other 27 years were."
Go get them, Mr. Van Nostrand.