Helmers, scribes battle

Testy issue of copyright control is legit concern

A potential battle is brewing between directors and playwrights over the thorny issue of copyright control.

The recently settled lawsuit brought by “Love! Valour! Compassion!” helmer Joe Mantello has Dramatists Guild prexy John Weidman worried over its implications for playwrights’ control of their work.

“We’re at the first step regarding this issue,” Weidman said. “The Dramatists Guild has been on the sidelines. We’re moving off the sidelines, because our rights are what’s in play here.” Weidman is putting forth his views on the subject in an upcoming issue of American Theater magazine.

In March, the Society of Stage Directors & Choreographers won an out-of-court settlement in the Mantello suit after three years of litigation. Mantello had seen a 1996 production of the Terrence McNally play in Florida that he considered a replication of his Broadway direction. The settlement awarded him $7,000, as well as a written acknowledgment that the theater had inadvertently used his work without his permission.

Recent past

Nearly five years earlier, there had been an almost identical suit — and settlement: Gerald Gutierrez, who directed “The Most Happy Fella” on Broadway in 1992, claimed his artistic innovations from that production were appropriated in a production of the Frank Loesser musical at an Illinois theater.

Somewhere along the way, both Gutierrez and Mantello filed to copyright their direction, a move that rankles Weidman. Ronald Shechtman, a partner in the New York firm of Pyror, Cashman, Sherman & Flynn, which repped the directors and SSDC in their cases, said Gutierrez and Mantello now hold copyright certificates to their work on the plays.

But Weidman insists that because the suit was settled out of court, the copyright is not necessarily legally valid.

“It appears the directors have established something specific (here) or won a kind of victory, but they haven’t. These cases have been settled out of court. To the extent that it is settled, directors do not have the ability to copyright their work. But the union is attempting to establish that right on their behalf.”

Barbara Hauptman, exec director of the SSDC, insists that the directors’ conflicts are not with the playwrights. “The ‘Love! Valour! Compassion!’ and ‘Most Happy Fella’ cases were directors vs. directors,” she explains. “They had nothing to do with the playwright.”

SSDC prexy Ted Pappas insists that his org isn’t out to get a piece of the authors’ action. “This isn’t about Terrence McNally’s text. It’s about what Joe Mantello brought to the play, then had copied. Does Mantello want a piece of the play? No. But what Mantello creates belongs to Mantello.”

But Peter Stone, who headed the Dramatists Guild for 18 years, said that, regardless of assurances to the contrary, a piece of the action is what copyright insures. “Subsidiary rights is something that’s carved up between the producer and the copyright holder,” said the book writer for “1776” and “Titanic.” “The directors want to be an additional copyright holder and get in on some of the subsidiary rights,” those for stock and amateur productions being some of the most lucrative.

Goal seeking

And there are indications that the SSDC could indeed be seeking such participation. Last year Samuel French, Dramatist Play Service, Music Theater Intl. and other licensing orgs were surprised to receive a letter from the SSDC notifying them that henceforth stage directions were the property of the director and not to be published without permission and compensation to the director. It represented a major change in usage of stage directions in play texts. Weidman remarks, “We found out about it secondhand.”

Reaction from the publishers, said Hauptman, ranged from “not very pleased” to “not a word.”

Steve Fultan, prez of the Dramatist Play Service (which is partly owned by the Dramatists Guild), said, “SSDC, which has been trying to get a copyright position in the federal courts, will not confront the playwrights directly, so (they) do an end-around. They go to us and try to make us the fall guy for their problem with the authors. It’s annoying to say the least.”

Weidman said he’s most concerned about the effect directors’ copyrights might have on theatrical productions in the future: “Of enormous importance to a playwright is his ability to control and dispose of the work he has created.” With directors holding copyright, said Weidman, playwrights would acquire legal partners. “And those partnerships could become potentially paralyzing to the production of a playwright’s work in the future.”

Not talking

Despite the conflicts, the two organizations have not actually sat down to discuss these issues.

“I’d love to have in informal discussion with (the Guild),” insists Hauptman, who said she has not heard from the playwrights on the matter. “I hope we can settle this within the industry, rather than a judge making some bad law.”