Who owns a show?

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Who owns a show?

Postby Jessica » September 6th, 2012, 7:07 pm

So recently I've been thinking about this issue. In Austin we have all been really kindly respectful of other people around this issue, which is awesome. But I thought it might be good to get some conversation on it.

Does the Theater that funded and supported a show own it?

Does the director who created the artistic vision and nourished it to stage own it?

Does the cast who fulfilled that vision and brought life to it, creating different permutations of it every night, own it?

If a format does belong to a theater, then what if they decided never to do it again, but the cast and/or director loved it so much they want to bring it back?

What if the director wants to take the show to another city?

What if a troupe comes up with a format and then shows it in a Theater - who owns it then? Do all members of the troupe have equal claim on the format? What if that troupe breaks up?

How much does something have to be different before it is a new show?

Thoughts?
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Postby Brad Hawkins » September 6th, 2012, 7:19 pm

I hope Justin reads this thread, since the Professor is the example of a theater-hopping show that comes to mind most readily.

But I'm sure the policy is set by the theaters themselves. Roy? Shannon? Tom? Want to weigh in? When you book a show, is there any agreement that ownership of the show belongs to any particular party?
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Postby Roy Janik » September 6th, 2012, 8:27 pm

It's definitely a complex issue. And one I don't have a good, standing policy on.

But if I really want the Hideout to own a Mainstage show, I make that clear before we cast the show so that we're on the same page.

It's easy with shows like Austin Secrets, or After School Improv or The Violet Underbelly, because I or some other core staff member have some direct hand in their creation.

Ideally, if a show is hugely successful and the director and cast comes off the heels of a Hideout debut looking to do more, I want to continue that relationship... and make it The Hideout Theatre presents Batman at The Long Center or whatever.

Uh, basically in typing this, I realize I don't have a good answer at all, and that it's probably time to get more explicit about it.
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » September 6th, 2012, 8:34 pm

i tend to side with creators in these matters more often than not. yes, the theatre/producer invested money and time into the production, but in most instances i can think of in this town (GNAP's non-profit status aside), the theatre is the sole beneficiary of any revenue generated. so they recoup their losses through ticket sales, and receive any profits generated (however slight they might be...this IS theatre we're talking about, after all). so what do the cast/troupe/director/creator have beyond some level of creative control?

of course, that's my view based on principle. policy may vary. in the end, know what you're getting into with the people you're partnering with.

i'm not entirely sure how "ownership" works on shows that directly use pre-existing source material. can you declare intellectual propriety over homage? i don't think The Professor is going to be suing Doctor Who LIVE! at IOWest for infringement, for instance. genre shows get even murkier. even if Violet Underground is the property of the Hideout (less murky ownership, the director owns the theatre)...is there really anything stopping someone else from doing a noir inspired show somewhere else in town? that's been my thought of late...who "owns" a format in a broader sense? Process is being produced in three different cities, independent of each other. Harolds exist in abundance outside of IO and IOWest. there's no real "copyright" at work, y'know? guess there's no real intellectual property jurisdiction in improv...which has its pros and cons. lol!
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Postby Roy Janik » September 6th, 2012, 8:40 pm

Jordan,

Excellent points. I don't give a tinker's damn about formats or concepts, unless they're highly specific (Like Austin Secret's 4 act structure).

I'm more talking about the specific show... the branding, the credibility, the name...

Basically, the more the theater has a hand in a show's guts and creation, the more ownership I feel towards it.
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Postby kbadr » September 6th, 2012, 8:49 pm

I don't see it as ownership, so much as...right of first refusal? If a show that debuted at The Hideout (and was given rehearsal space, marketing, costuming, etc), I'd like to be offered a run of it again if the director/producer wants to put one on, before it's taken somewhere else.

Once there's real money involved, we'll have to get more explicit about such things.




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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » September 6th, 2012, 9:00 pm

would you consider that more a point of professional courtesy, Kareem, or an actual policy you'd like to have in place?
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Postby kbadr » September 6th, 2012, 9:08 pm

It's professional courtesy until it's explicit.

For The Hideout mainstage shows, in particular, I think it makes sense. Those shows have become part of the identity of the theater, and I don't think it does anyone a service by potentially confusing the audience by having them move around. It literally hasn't come up yet, though. So I'm sure we'll be more explicit about it in the future. I wouldn't feel right getting too serious about it until we're paying directors for their shows.

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Postby valetoile » September 6th, 2012, 10:29 pm

In legal terms, I think anyone can do any kind of improv show whether it's been done anywhere else or not and no one can do a damn thing about it. In the end, you're producing completely original material every night so there's no issue of copyright. But it's not always the most professional, courteous, or ethical thing to do. I think the nice thing to do is at the very least inform the creators that you were so inspired by their show that you'd like to do something like that too, and acknowledge them as much as possible in your run. At best, maybe you could even collaborate, or come up with a new spin on the old idea that yes-ands the original. There are no new ideas people, just new people doing them. In terms of a show name, images for branding, slogans, structure, etc. there is definitely some gray area as to ownership. The legalities of stuff like this in all areas of creativity are hazy at best.

I know it feels weird to have someone see your show and then take it back to where they are and do basically the same thing. A strange mix of being flattered and cheated. What would make me happy is to see someone inspired by what I did, take that as a starting place, and make something that is completely their own. And I think, especially in improv, that's exactly what usually happens. Because we thrive in this magnificent untamed beast of unpredictability and spontaneity, every iteration is inescapably different. Each new person brings a different twist. Even the second "season" of a show like Dickens, put on by the same directors at the same theatre with a significant overlap in cast, is a different animal than the first.

My advice to performers would be, avoid imitation and strive for innovation. Be inspired and always push yourself to find something unexpected. My advice to the creators would be- don't fight too hard to maintain ownership of a concept. You can't stop it, and your generosity will serve you better than trying to cling to something which is ultimately abstract and ephemeral. Nothing anyone else does can take away what you are doing. But if someone is using your name and confusing people and putting on bad work that makes people think you suck, you should politely ask them to call it something else. And maybe kindly offer your services (in a non-disparaging way) as someone who has some experience in this field and would love to see them succeed.

A tangential thought- who does the actual content of a performance belong to? If I was in a really sweet Stool Pigeon and we did a hilarious scene and I wanted to write that down and tweak it and use it in a sketch show with some different people would I have the rights to it? I don't think that would be okay ethically, but where do the legalities fall?
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Postby Chuy! » September 6th, 2012, 10:38 pm

Kareem's point is more the norm. For example, (I know it's not improv) when Teatro Vivo picks plays for it's New Play Fest in the spring, the playwrights are asked to sign a contract that gives TV right of first refusal to produce the play. This is mainly because of the time and effort put in to workshopping the script.

I think if an improv theatre allows a show to manifest itself at the theatre's expense, then the creator MUST give some thought to approaching said theatre when other opportunities arise. It's professional courtesy. I think in most cases, you are gonna find that the theatre will not stifle the creator's future endeavors. Not everyone's a dick. And that's a pretty dock move unless you have a really good reason.
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Postby Brad Hawkins » September 6th, 2012, 11:14 pm

valetoile wrote:In legal terms, I think anyone can do any kind of improv show whether it's been done anywhere else or not and no one can do a damn thing about it. In the end, you're producing completely original material every night so there's no issue of copyright. But it's not always the most professional, courteous, or ethical thing to do. I think the nice thing to do is at the very least inform the creators that you were so inspired by their show that you'd like to do something like that too, and acknowledge them as much as possible in your run. At best, maybe you could even collaborate, or come up with a new spin on the old idea that yes-ands the original. There are no new ideas people, just new people doing them. In terms of a show name, images for branding, slogans, structure, etc. there is definitely some gray area as to ownership. The legalities of stuff like this in all areas of creativity are hazy at best.


I was just thinking that. There's no script. What can you copyright? I don't even think titles can be copyrighted? (There are a lot of instances where two movies have the same name; rent the wrong Jack Frost to watch with your kids sometime) So my understanding is I could go to a theater and put on a show called False Matters: Improvised Stories in the Style of Philip K. Dick without Shannon's permission or involvement and I'd be on solid legal ground.

Of course, I'd be ostracized by the community for such a blatant dick move*, but if I were to go somewhere where there is no concept of right and wrong, like LA, it'd all be gravy, baby.

I'm kind of hoping my interpretation is wrong, actually.

* For fuck's sake, no pun intended.
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Postby valetoile » September 7th, 2012, 12:08 am

A little research seems to confirm your belief Brad. Titles of books and movies cannot be copyrighted, and one would assume that neither can improv shows. But series titles, like Harry Potter, can. So maybe an improv show is a series, since every show is different? Where do TV show titles fall?
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Postby sara farr » September 7th, 2012, 12:35 am

There is a precedence on the question of legal ownership of a show. Theatersports, Micetro Impro, Gorilla Theatre and ComedySportz are all shows with formats that were created AND THEN copyrighted & trademarked and are OWNED by someone. Yet they've also been copied, modified, and shaped into something NEW by lots of improvisers.

The Theatresports™, Micetro Impro™, Gorilla Theatre™ and Life Game™ improvisation formats (a.k.a. “the Formats”) are all registered trademarks and copyrights. This means that, similar to main-stage productions such as “Les Misérables”, you need to have permission to use any of the Formats.


To discuss licensing the ComedySportz® Show in your city, please e-mail the WCL Executive Director. For college and high school groups: we do not license school groups directly, but through our existing licensed clubs. Please contact the club nearest you for information. ComedySportz® is a registered trademark of World Comedy League, Inc.


For those shows that a theater produces which have NOT been trademarked or copyrighted... AND for those shows that were created in collaboration WITH a theater (or theater company principles)... the question should be, "Has the work been PAID for?"

In the game development industry, you sign away ownership to ALL YOUR IDEAS that will be created during your time with the company. The reasoning is that those ideas generated by the company environment belong to the company. I had to sign a several of these "Intellectual Property" (IP) contracts during my career. And because of that, it was very important for me to document all my pre-existing ideas so I could maintain my ownership of those ideas when/if I left the company. However, I got PAID for my work during my time at the company. And that work included the creation of new ideas/games/software.

In the case where a producing theater is putting up the money to produce the show, the theater is a taking a risk in putting up the cash to cover the cost of marketing, staffing and facilities (rent) for the show -- on which they may never see a return. Therefore, it makes sense that the theater gets to recuperate their costs and make enough profit to act as an incentive for the producing theater to make the risk in the first place. I think this is SIMILAR to how new drugs are made -- a balanced risk/reward system -- where the drugs that are a high risk to research & development, are guaranteed a high payoff if they work.

HOWEVER, THIS IS STILL NOT PAYING THE CREATOR(S) FOR THE SHOW CONTENT. If the creator(s) of the show are never compensated for their creative property (which is the show format/branding/ etc.), then that property should belong to the creator(s).

A similar question has come up with Henson's Puppet Up company. If the parent company is paying improvisers to generate new characters with its puppets, but it is paying the performers for this work, then the theater owns those characters/voices and can do with them what it wants. In this case, all the characters/voices created during the Puppet Up shows are owned by the company -- not the performers. This is a very touchy subject for the performers who can be left out in the cold when the producing company chooses to bring in NEW performers and cast them in the role of that character.

I'm GUESSING that a similar model is used at Second City and Groundlings, where those characters and SKETCHES created during improvised performances have become the property of the theater. But this only makes sense if the theater PURCHASES those characters by paying the actors to create them. However, I don't know if this is true. If the improvisers/performers never sign a contract agreeing to give up ownership of the characters they generate, I'm guessing it would be a difficult battle to win (either way).

But I have NEVER been asked to sign an IP contract with an improv theater. And I doubt other cities' theaters are doing this... at least not until there is BIG money involved (as Kareem suggested).
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Postby Chuy! » September 7th, 2012, 12:49 am

This reminds me of the falling out between myself and Marc Pruter back in the day. He was going to try to use some Ray Prewitt's 4th Grade Class sketches in a Monk's Night Out show that was playing in front of HBO executives in L.A. Sure RP4GC was a "b" troupe of Monk's at the time... Sure there were Monk's actors that might have done just of good of a job performing these sketches... But, we wrote them. We performed them in front of audiences. We edited them. The fact that Pruter put us together was beside the point. It was a dick move. We immediately mailed the sketches to ourselves in order to prove that they were ours (if litigation were necessary) and broke off on our own. DISCLAIMER: This was strictly between Marc and RP4GC. No one else in Monk's Night Out was responsible for this situation.

Basically, don't be a dick. It's the reason that many people still won't talk to Marc. He made a lot of dick moves back then... (And lately)
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Postby kbadr » September 7th, 2012, 1:22 am

As a theater owner, I am more than happy for a show producer and cast to make money performing the show elsewhere (like The Drafthouse, for example). All I ask, as Roy said, is that the theater gets thrown a "The Hideout Theatre Presents" bone, for marketing purposes. The idea being that the theater, and improv community at large, has more to gain by increased awareness than an individual group of performers does.

I am curious how Second City handles the characters and sketches thing. I am pretty sure that performers still own the characters. Didn't PeeWee Herman come out of a Groundlings show? Didn't Martin Short play Ed Grimley on SCTV, and then SNL later?

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