Legal Issues

by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
copyright, performance, trademark, urinetown

Can You Plagiarize A Play You Licensed To Perform? The Urinetown Saga...

from the you-have-got-to-be-kidding dept

A few years back I got to see the musical Urinetown when it came through San Francisco. It's really very funny, and if you happen to live somewhere that it's playing, I'd recommend you go check it out. However, apparently, in going to watch it in some places, you might be seeing an "infringing" version -- even if it's been properly licensed. William Patry lays out some of the details behind the latest bizarre situation in the world of intellectual property rights, where the folks behind Urinetown's Broadway production accused those behind Chicago's production of plagiarism as well as violations of copyright and trademark law. It wasn't because the folks in Chicago hadn't licensed the work. In fact, the "Chicago team" licensed both the script and the music to perform. Apparently, though, that wasn't enough. The folks in NY said the folks in Chicago had "blatantly" plagiarized and copied the NY production in producing their own version. This is the point at which it might be worth pointing out that of course they copied the NY production. That's because they were putting on the same damn play. Apparently, the folks in NY thought that even with the script and the music, the Chicago version needed to look different than the NY version, which seems rather ridiculous. All of this came out in a lawsuit filed by the people in Chicago against their accusers in NY (who even demanded that the Chicago team "decline and remit" the awards it had won for its production). Unfortunately, the court tossed out the case, as the folks in Chicago apparently sued the wrong party in NY (whoops). So, perhaps there will be a follow up with the correct party being sued. In the meantime, it does seem rather ironic that a play about taking laws to ridiculous extremes now faces just such a battle. Perhaps it'll give the playwright an idea for his next play.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    meee toooo, Oct 11th, 2007 @ 8:31am

    I'd be pissed

    if this were me

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Bah who needs one, Oct 11th, 2007 @ 8:54am

    It's ludicrous. The two productions don't even compete with one another, due to that little thing called "geography". People will go to the one in their reasonable-driving-distance, or do without. Absence of the Chicago production would not have increased the NY one's revenues by a thin dime; it would just have resulted in Chicago residents not seeing the play that actually did.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Salmun, Oct 11th, 2007 @ 9:42am


    My first thought when reading this was that we'd be better off if every lawyer, every politician, every lawman, etc. were executed. Sure the country would descend into anarchy for a while, but when it came out we couldn't be any worse off than where we are or where we'd have reached without this action, and we could get off to a much better, much saner, start.

    My second thought was to question whether this would be heaven or hell. No lawyers, no politicians, no overzealous overreaching arrogant lawmen... sounds like heaven. Descent into anarchy... sounds like hell, or maybe the beginning of the endtimes.

    My third thought was, what am I thinking... corrupt lawyers, politicians, and police... all branches of our government and justice system full of idiots, thieves, morons, and worse... it's too late, we're already experiencing the apocalypse.

    Let's all just bend over, take it like adults, and pray we're judged worthy of salvation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Boost, Oct 11th, 2007 @ 9:47am

    Re: Anarchy

    yeah, this makes sense...Wait, no it doesn't!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Jezsik, Oct 11th, 2007 @ 10:25am

    "Don't be the bunny!"

    I think they're taking that to the extreme.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    ryan, Oct 11th, 2007 @ 10:26am

    Intellectual property squabbles . . .

    . . . will bring on the apocalypse.

    You'll see!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    flo, Oct 11th, 2007 @ 10:36am


    If someone earned a paycheck as art director or scenograph or whatever while just cloning the NY show, I kinda see the point. If not, I'll just go with "yeah bu...what?"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Matthew Bates, Oct 11th, 2007 @ 10:40am

    Urinetown "illuminated"

    While i cannot defend the sanity of the situation or anyone involved, some background might illuminate some of the more arcane aspects.

    When a theatrical production is mounted AFTER an original broadway production the new producers have the option of buying the entire production and just putting it in a new theatre of their choice. This is called by many "show in a box." You are buying/licensing the entire show, score, book, set, lighting and choreography.

    Or you can license the score and book and mount the show yourself with your own designers and directors.

    People involved in the Urinetown fiasco have directly told me that the Chicago producers did not license the designs/direction or choreography and then slavisly copied them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    pegr, Oct 11th, 2007 @ 10:41am

    Can't copyright lighting design...

    Title 17, section 101: "'Copies' are material objects, other than phonorecords, in which a work is fixed by any method now known or later developed, and from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. The term 'copies' includes the material object, other than a phonorecord, in which the work is first fixed."

    Lighting design is not fixed upon tangible medium, ergo, while it may be a method of expression, it is not copyrightable.

    A drawing of a stage design is copyrightable. Two different drawings of the same stage design are not copies and do not infringe upon each other. I can paint the same scene you paint, but it's still not a copy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 11th, 2007 @ 10:54am

    Re: Can't copyright lighting design...

    I don't think you fully understand what you just quoted. Please reread Title 17, Section 101.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Ben, Oct 11th, 2007 @ 10:59am

    free press

    This sounds more like an Advertisement stunt then anything else.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Chris, Oct 11th, 2007 @ 11:58am

    Well well well....

    Don't be the bunny.......

    I wounder if I will get sued because I didn't put that quote in quotes, even though it is fair use and such... Urinetown lawyers, I dare you, sue the 16 year old kid who loves the show (but has never seen it except for unlicensed bits on youtube)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    toomanyhandles, Oct 11th, 2007 @ 12:47pm

    crossed a line, apparently

    From my brother, technical director of a Real Theatre:
    that's oldish news. Although they are doing the 'same' play... they just copied the designs and even choreography completely down to a 'T'. While there is a great deal of 'using and reusing' in theatre, these guys I guess went a bit too far in making the production "the same." When you get rights to the music/script -you do not get rights to the designs.

    Usually spaces/money are so different that is not an issue, things have to change. And given the relaxed nature of the borrowing bits from here and there common in the industry -they must have really been bad (or stupid about it). Productions usually want to put their own spin/stamp on things too...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Heaven, Oct 11th, 2007 @ 12:57pm

    Help Us

    I heard Chevrolet was suing Chrysler over "infringement" on car design: four wheels of the same exact size, a windshield, multiple colors (some are nearly identical in shade), seats upon which passengers sit, and, oh my gawd, even nearly identical pushrod engines with identical fuel injection systems...the list is nearly endless. I mean when will people wake up to how patently UNFAIR stealing these ideas is?????

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    noneyet, Oct 12th, 2007 @ 4:33am

    you guys don't get it

    It's not like Chevy suing Chrysler over similar colors and four wheels.

    It's like Ford suing Chevy for making and selling an identical Taurus.

    There are some things you have rights to when you buy the script/music license; if you want to "clone" the whole damn thing you have to pay extra money on top of that (and show yourself to have no creative vision of your own whatsoever....)

    Two or three informed people have posted this fact, but don't bother to read and learn.....

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    pegr, Oct 12th, 2007 @ 5:45am

    Re: you guys don't get it

    Perhaps I don't get it. Please describe how any of the components you fail to explicitly identify are subject to copyright, trademark, patent, or trade secret protection?

    If they are not subject to copyright, patent, trademark, or trade secret, they are not subject to any form of legal protection and may be used by others.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    noneyet, Oct 12th, 2007 @ 5:57am

    Re: you guys don't get it

    read post #8!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Truth, Oct 13th, 2007 @ 5:44am

    Re: Re: you guys don't get it

    Guys, do a little more research both the Ohio and Illinois productions were massively different then the Broadway production. This is a really poor planned effort to take a portion of the authors royalties away and PS the case is still going on in both cities

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Who told you that Mr. Bates?, Oct 13th, 2007 @ 8:50am

    Re: Urinetown "illuminated"

    Who told you that the Chicago production copied the Broadway production Mr. Bates?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    A theater professional, Oct 15th, 2007 @ 1:16pm

    Re: Can't copyright lighting design...

    Lighting Design can indeed be fixed, in the form of written light plots, channel hookups, cue sheets, etc. All of these things have standard notation. Similarly sound design, costume design, and choreography have standard notations and methods of "fixing." Direction, on the other hand, has no standard notation, and is therefore much more difficult to prove infringement.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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