Can a non-profit theater organisation perform a play without rights if the performance is free? 2 Answers as of August 09, 2011

Can a non-profit theater organization perform a play without the rights if the performance is free? Can they collect donations?

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Greenwald, Mayfield & Vigil, LLP
Greenwald, Mayfield & Vigil, LLP | Darrell J. Greenwald
Maybe. It's possible to perform the play without acquiring the rights or in the alternative, acquiring the rights, but not paying for them. If the play is in the public domain, the Non-Profit Organization (NPO) can perform the play without acquiring the rights. Otherwise, if the play is not in the public domain and remains protected by copyright laws, the NPO must first acquire the public performance rights from the owner or risk a suit for infringement. However, acquiring the rights doesn't necessarily mean paying for them (or paying very much for them). If the NPO requests permission from the rights owner to perform the play free of charge or, in the alternative, at a reduced rate. Although the likelihood that the owner agreeing to such a request is not particularly great, (especially if donations are collected) it won't cost the NPO anything to ask so it's worth a shot to ask. Also, it should be noted that the doctrine of fair use, which allows for the unauthorized use of copyrighted works in certain circumstances, probably won't apply in a case like this where the entire play is performed and donations are collected.
Answer Applies to: California
Replied: 8/9/2011
Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver, PLLC
Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver, PLLC | Thomas Mansfield Dunlap
You are referring to the doctrine of "fair use" which generally does not work that way for a work of authorship (in this case a play) that is still "in copyright". However, you can certainly perform any play that is out of copyright, which generally, as of this year, means works published before 1923. If there is a more specific question on a particular play I suggest contacting a lawyer. Feel free to email out firm or call for a consultation if this did not answer your question. Disclaimer: This responses is not legal advice upon which you can rely in your situation as our firm has not been retained and we do not have the facts necessary to render such an opinion.
Answer Applies to: District of Columbia
Replied: 8/9/2011
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