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Daniel Evans: Performing rights need to work fairly for everyone

Eleanor Worthington-Cox (Scout) and Robert Sean Leonard (Atticus Finch) in To Kill A Mockingbird at Regent's Park Opera in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Theatrical performing rights can be the bane of a producer’s life. One can come up with a seemingly genius idea only to find out that the real genius is the producer who got there first and stumped up the cash.

However, a few weeks ago, we seemed to enter uncharted waters when two sets of producers – one on each side of the Atlantic – believed they had the rights to a show. The US producer of a show currently running on Broadway protested at his British counterparts, whose production was in rehearsals for a UK tour, citing ownership of the performing rights.

Initially, it seemed that both parties had been granted the rights – and that was logical and plausible in many ways. One was playing in the US, the other in the UK. One was on Broadway, the other on tour. One was a new adaptation of the novel by a famous writer, the other, an adaptation we know and love.

There was no obvious crossover in their competing markets. Take Sam Shepard’s play True West as an example: concurrent and distinct productions are currently running on Broadway [1] and in the West End [2]. No problem.

The US company hadn’t previously declared a desire to perform in London, but even then, given the British production wasn’t being performed anywhere near London, one could be forgiven for assuming the world was wide enough for both.

Only when the threat of legal action was made against the producers and venues of the UK tour on behalf of the Americans did the nub of the issue become clear. It transpires that the Americans believe they own the worldwide rights, which entitles their production to be the only one in existence throughout the world.

Major tour of To Kill a Mockingbird cancelled following ‘rights clash with Broadway producer’ [3]

This explains the US producers’ successful attempt to shut down the UK production, causing startling disruptions to theatres across the country as well as to the lives of the people involved in making the show.

How was it that rights were granted to two sets of producers and somehow, unknown to the licensors, one of those licences trumped the other? Legally, their co-existence was an impossibility.

Fortunately, episodes on this scale are few and far between. One can imagine the challenges facing estates, particularly those who represent popular writers whose work is constantly in demand.

How do they make a judgement call about whether producers will ensure their adaptations remain true to the original work and not bastardise it?

The temptation to enable the work to be shared with audiences far and wide must be strong – both financially and artistically. Against that, the work itself can lose out – or at least, risks being devalued – by ubiquity.

So, how is it possible to ensure a licence is worth more than the paper it’s written on? And ultimately, who holds the rights-holders – the estates and licensors, ultimately the owners of the keys to production – to account?

Daniel Evans is artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre. Read more of his columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/daniel-evans [4]