I covered this already in my Self-Publishing a Stage Play series in another post but this is far and away the most frequently asked question on this series so let’s have another go at it, shall we?
“What if someone tries to perform my play without permission?”
TD; DR Version: People will try to perform your play without paying no matter how you put it out there but it’s not difficult to stay on top of and make sure you get paid anyway.
Long version: I have a bunch of self-published plays and a bunch with legacy play publishers and people try to to perform the plays without paying or permission in both cases. I don’t have any hard data on this but it seems like it happens *more* often with the traditionally published plays than the ones I’ve put out there myself. It’s going to happen even if you’re only emailing copies out for perusal or for submissions (if all the anecdotes on the playwriting forum I’m on are to be believed) or have it posted somewhere like NPX so it’s certainly not limited to self-publishing or Amazon.
The way you combat it is staying on top of mentions of your plays by having alerts for your play titles and your name on places like Google, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Whenever you find someone who has done or is doing your play without permission, you contact them and mention you’ve yet to get their contract or payment and would they prefer the invoice and agreement emailed or postal mailed? Be super nice, chill and professional no matter how annoyed you are really. Lots of times it is truly an innocent mistake (new person who didn’t know the ropes, two directors each thinking the other handled it, etc) or they will pretend it was anyway and they’ll apologize and pay right off. Sometimes it’s trickier and you have to go over their helmet until you find someone who’ll pay but they usually do.
Worst case, contact the Dramatist’s Guild (if you’re a member) and see if they can help.
There is DRM (Digital Rights Management) you can put on your eBook files so they cannot be printed (and places like Amazon do this automatically) but it can always be circumvented with enough known how if someone wants to badly enough. It also annoys paying customers so it’s a double edged sword.
What I do to head it off at the start, though, is, in my self-published plays, I encourage them to contact me if they’re interested in performing it because I offer a discount on bulk orders of scripts and a discount off licensing if they’re ordering scripts as well as performance rights. 99% of the time, people contact to at least find out the cost of those and, once we’re in touch, I can seal the deal in a way everyone is happy with. It’s the classic marketing trick where, when the person feels like they know you (from exchanging messages) they are more likely to want to support you.
Also make it as easy as humanly possible to contact you in many different ways so they truly have no excuse.
The problem is not the format of the script or how you put it out there. The problem is education. A lot of people, even those who work in theatre, genuinely don’t realize they have to get permission to perform a play (or to change a play but that’s a whole separate discussion) or to pay to use it so, frustrating as it may be, it’s always going to happen. But, how it you handle it when it does happen determines a lot. If you’re a nightmare, they will never want to do anything by you ever again paid or otherwise. But if you’re great to work with and accommodating and understanding, well, it’s no coincidence that some of what are now my most loyal fans started out as people trying to do my stuff without permission.
That’s another marketing lesson that applies here. Your worst customer can almost always be converted to your best customer if you handle the situation right. Giving people the benefit of the doubt that they weren’t trying to be evil can go a really long way to smoothing things over and keeping everyone happy.
Some other things, while we’re on this topic.
Another question I get a lot is “What if they change the name of my play and take my name off it and try to pass it off as their own what then, Hillary!!!???” And, like… I can’t tell you this is never going to happen but it’s super unlikely. I have several adaptations where people take my version and try to pretend it’s an original version but I almost always find out because they keep the name just similar enough or forget to change my original character names. If you are really paranoid about it, set alerts for your character names too, but (and here I take your hand super gently and lean in like the good friends we are) if you are worried about this happening, you are not well known enough for it to happen to. I know we all want to think we are the greatest writer in the history of ever but, seriously? There are zillions of plays out there. And if someone really wanted to take a play to tweak and pretend they wrote it, would they really choose your self-published piece? And, even if they did, your words were copyrighted as soon as you wrote them so you could stop them as soon as they tried to do anything with them worth doing like publication or professional production, etc. You can even register them at Copyright.gov if you want for a small fee for extra protection. Either way, they will always be your words.
I understand the thought process, I truly do. Your words are obviously the best words ever written so OF COURSE everyone is going to want to steal them and the thought of someone else taking them keeps you up at night but it is just paranoia. Breathe. It will be OK.
Now, when a group does do someone’s show without permission and the playwright is asking what they should do, there’s always some dude who comments with something like, “Let them do it for free, who cares! It’s exposure! It’s free publicity! You should be happy anyone wants to do your play at all! Didn’t you let that one act festival do it for free last month anyway? etc” and, seriously, screw that guy. You are not wrong to care. They are wrong to steal. Writers should be paid for their work and you have every right (and obligation from a copyright protection standpoint) to follow-up even if you ultimately let them do it for free after all or nothing comes of it.
Your work has the value you assign to it. There’s a big difference between you granting a group the rights to do your play free for your own reasons and a group doing it without permission. Just because I choose to give out candy to kids for free on Halloween doesn’t mean you can just break into my house and eat my Kit Kats on any random day you choose.
In conclusion, when it comes to theft Keep Calm and Carry On. Use alerts to keep an eye on stuff, keep calm and cool if someone does try to steal your play and always fight for your right to party where “to party” means to keep writing plays and protecting your creative rights.