Is a Play Of Plays Making Fair Use Of Other Playwrights’ Words?

February 6th, 2016 § 6 comments

Promotional image for thatswhatshesaid

Promotional image for thatswhatshesaid (photo by Tim Summers)

There’s nothing quite like getting a cease and desist letter.

It may be commonplace if you’re an attorney and you’re receiving a cease and desist claim on behalf of clients, but for artists and arts administrators, at least, there’s a particular chill that accompanies opening a letter (or e-mail) that informs you that if you plan to present, or are currently presenting, a work that the sender feels is in violation of their rights and you don’t stop right away, you’re going to be subject to an assortment of penalties, typically not specified in the first salvo. Cease and desist letters are rather blunt instruments, and unless the artists or companies that receive them had an inkling that what they were doing might tick someone off, they can be quite disorienting, especially if the artists and/or companies don’t have an attorney on speed dial who can help them to determine the best course of action and the ability to pay said attorney to advise them and defend their interests.

According to a report by Rich Smith for Seattle’s The Stranger, Erin Pike, Courtney Meaker and Gay City Arts in Seattle, or some combination thereof, received a cease and desist late yesterday (Friday), demanding the immediate suspension of performances of Pike and Meaker’s thatswhatshesaid, which had given the first of four scheduled performances at Gay City Arts on Thursday evening. Thatswhatshesaid is a two-act theatre piece, performed solely by Pike, which is constructed out of dialogue and stage directions given to women in the 11 most produced plays in the country in 2014-15, as determined by American Theatre magazine. The works on that list include Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang and Sondheim and Lapine’s Into The Woods. Earlier, briefer versions of thatswhatshesaid have been performed in Seattle, Portland and Minneapolis.

The cease and desist correspondence came from Samuel French, the licensing house which represents some of the works on the American Theater list and are therefore excerpted in the production; Smith’s report doesn’t say whether Dramatists Play Service or Music Theatre International, which also represent some of the works utilized by Pike and Meaker, have taken any action against thatswhatshesaid. Smith’s report also seems to indicate that French’s letter concerns only the use of material from Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon, even though the newly devised work also contains material from Tribes by Nina Raine and The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez, which are is also represented by French.

The report in The Stranger quotes a segment of French’s letter and it seems to be fairly standard cease and desist boilerplate, with the appropriate parties’ names plugged in:

Any such program, publicity, production and/or presentation by you and/or permitted by you constitute and shall constitute the intentional infringement of the copyrights, trademarks and or other rights of our author and subject you and any and all other persons and/or firms involved with the publicity, presentation and/or production to the civil and criminal penalties specified under applicable law.

Should you or any of you permit these unlicensed programs and/or performances to take place and/or be performed, whether at a venue leased, owned or operated by you or otherwise, you and all involved personal shall be held fully liable and accountable as infringers and/or contributory infringers as specified under applicable law.

Accordingly, formal demand is hereby made that you immediately cease and desist from any and all such action by the end of business today, Friday, February 5, 2016, and you confirm that you will not conduct, publicize and/or present and/or permit to be conducted, publicized and/or presented any such program and/or performances.

Failure to do so will expose Gay City Arts, and all individuals acting in concert with these parties, to actions for willful copyright and trademark infringement and other legal claims.

Daunting, no? Enough to scare off lots of those accused of infringing, especially those with limited means, without a fight, right?

Now if Pike were simply standing on stage and sequentially reading every bit of dialogue and stage directions involving the female characters from each play, then what’s going on might be perceived as simple appropriation of copyrighted material, though even that’s not remotely a definitive determination. However, even with male roles excised, the sum total of that dialogue and stage directions could amount to seven or eight hours of stage time. Smith’s review of thatswhatshesaid for The Stranger, posted only seven hours before his report about the legal action, didn’t suggest he’d been at a marathon, but rather that Pike and Meaker had selectively chosen pieces of the various works and woven them into a quilt that yielded commentary on both the specific works, as well as the prevailing attitudes towards women being advanced in American theatre today.

So this seems the appropriate time to bring in the concept of “fair use.”

Your eyes may glaze over the moment someone suggests a primer in the fair use provision of U.S. copyright law, but it’s extremely pertinent here. Copyright law is designed to insure that original works remain the property of those who own them, for a defined period of time, so that they can derive revenue from the material without having it simply taken by others for their own benefit. It is why, simplistically, someone cannot simply retype a novel and publish it as their own work, or why plays can’t be performed without appropriate royalties due to the playwright.

But fair use keeps that ownership from being absolute in all cases. Because fair use allows for parody, Mad Magazine or Saturday Night Live or Key and Peele don’t need to pay the authors of creative works they might riff on. Because fair use acknowledges the value of education, teachers don’t need to pay royalties when their students simply read a play aloud in class. Fair use permits quotations from an original work in reviews and critical pieces about that work, and the same holds true for scholarly works. Fair use also considers whether new work that is in some way drawn from or inspired by an earlier work or works is sufficiently transformative of, and distinct from the original(s) as to constitute a sufficiently original work in and of itself.

But here’s the tricky part about fair use: while there are general guidelines as to what is protected under the fair use provisions, there is no absolute determinant that can be applied in all cases. That’s where lawyers and judges come in and that’s what helps to keep the field of intellectual property law perpetually active.

In Smith’s second report, he indicated that Pike had a plan as to how to proceed in the face of French’s cease and desist letter. That should prove fascinating. But it seems clear that if Pike and Meaker wish to mount future productions of thatswhatshesaid, or publish it, or have it licensed so that others may perform it, they’re going to have to challenge French’s assertions that their piece does violate the copyright protections afforded to Bad Jews, and presumably the other 10 works represented in the piece as well.

*   *   *

I haven’t read or seen thatswhatshesaid, but like many people to whom I’m connected on Facebook, I’d really like to. I wonder whether anyone from French has read or seen it, or if they’re just responding to The Stranger’s coverage of it. Smith’s review was zipping around on my timeline yesterday afternoon between theatre practitioners from all over, and I have to admit that the moment I read it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be an interesting copyright test.’

Without having firsthand knowledge of the piece, or a legal degree, I can’t even hazard a guess as to whether thatswhatshesaid is, even just in my opinion (which counts for absolutely nothing legally), seemingly allowable under fair use, or if the situation is somewhat muddier or even a definitive violation. What I do know is that unless Pike and Meaker themselves were to agree that they were knowingly skirting copyright violation, I’d like to see them pursue their rights to the new work, at least so far as getting good legal counsel about their creation.

In this instance, the new work is using verbatim quotes from other copyrighted works, by authors I admire and several of whom I know, rather than just a general outline of a dramatic/comedic premise, but I can’t help but wonder whether this newly coalescing dispute is in some way akin to what befell David Adjmi and his play 3C. That work was a dark parody of the sitcom Three’s Company, which was proscribed from production or publication for three years until a judge determined that it was permitted under fair use.  That said, there may be a corollary here to the disputes over sampling in music, which in many cases have found that the original creators are due income from the subsequent work since their original material was taken directly, even if it was incorporated into something new.

Some might wonder how, given my advocacy for the rights of playwrights to control their work, I can also express support for what Pike and Meaker have reportedly done. My answer is that we’re dealing with artists on both sides of this issue, and if thatswhatshesaid is genuinely transformative, if it is a critical assessment of those original works achieved through theatrical means, if it parodies those original works by mashing up and using their own words against them, then perhaps it should be allowed to have its own life. I doubt, even without having seen it, that thatswhatshesaid will undermine the value of or confuse audiences about the original works excerpted and collaged within it. I appreciate French’s position in defending their clients, but I’d like to see Pike and Meaker have an equally strong defense too.

Update, 12:30 pm February 6, 2015: I’ve stumbled onto the Twitter account of Courtney Meaker and I’d like to selectively quote from her posts regarding how they proceeded with the second performance of thatswhatshesaid. I share them in chronological order, but not every single post:

  • The show went on.
  • We redacted all the offending text per the cease and desist letter.
  • There will be more thoughts and likely a long essay to be written by me, but I want to say that[…]
  • […]as a playwright, I would be 100% on board with someone using my work in this way.
  • We held a completely subjective lens up to the work of the top ten most produced plays.
  • If my work was ever so lucky as to reach that spot, I would welcome someone dissecting it and taking it out of context.
  • I would want to know what someone thinks I’m saying about women using my own words.
  • I’m not perfect. I’m not a perfect feminist playwright. I’m me. And I would want to know.

Update, Monday February 8, 12 noon: Rich Smith of The Stranger has continued to pursue the story of thatswhatshesaid and the cease and desist letter issued by Samuel French. He interviewed French’s executive director Bruce Lazarus about their action, the play and the possibility of the piece being permissible under fair use.

I told him that in my review I described the work as a parody and a collage that draws from several plays, and asked if he considered the play fair use.

“That’s your interpretation. Because you call it a parody doesn’t make it so,” he said. Then he added, “Fair use is a defense, and if proved it’s perfectly fine and within the law. But it’s a judge’s determination as to whether [That’swhatshesaid] constitutes fair use. Not having seen it, not having read it, I couldn’t tell you if it was fair use or not.”

When asked whether he’ll act on his claim to “go after” Gay City Arts knowing that That’swhatshesaid ran with lines from Bad Jews redacted, Lazarus said it was up to Harmon and all the other authors “whose rights are potentially being infringed” to decide whether they want to pursue legal action.

I posited this story as a David and Goliath situation. Here you have a big publisher coming down on a tiny theater presenting a self-produced play. Did he consider the fact that the artists might not have enough money to retain a lawyer? “For all I know, the author of this play has the wherewithal and the resources to hire an attorney to do this play,” he said, “And our author has the wherewithal to hire an agent to enforce his rights.”

Update, Monday February 8, 11 pm: The Stranger’s Rich Smith continues to report on thatswhatshesaid, with a post from this afternoon citing the receipt of a second cease and desist letter by the show’s creators. It came from Samuel French specifically on behalf of Matthew Lopez in connection with his play The Whipping Man, which was included on American Theatre’s list. However, as Smith notes, The Whipping Man contains no female characters [the text in the original post above has been struck out to reflect that fact]. The only material in thatswhatshesaid pertaining to the play is the sound of performer Erin Pike riffling through the 72 page script.

Update, Thursday February 11, 3:30 pm: In a new report in The Stranger, Dramatists Play Service has now issued a cease and desist letter to thatswhatshesaid on behalf of five of their authors: Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang, Venus in Fur by David Ives, Tribes by Nina Raine, and Outside Mullingar by John Patrick Shanley.


This post will be updated as new information warrants.

Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts.


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  • Liam Cole

    “Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.” Igor Stravinsky

  • Catherine Castellani

    Well, I’m a woman and a playwright and a feminist. I’m not at all sure I’d be “on board” with someone doing this to my work, especially if they didn’t ask permission first or involve me in any way in the decision. The artists may be correct that they have a right to do this; then again, they could be wrong. But just because one artist is “on board” with a particular re-use hardly obligates every artist in the field to feel the same way. I cleared copyright permissions for a publisher for years, and had to constantly argue with editors that just because THEY felt subjectively that “this would be totally fine” or “I would be flattered if someone wanted to use my work this way” the decision rested with the copyright holder.

  • Noodle94

    I understand we shouldn’t dictate how artists choose to express themselves, but really…and how safe is it to say “Please feel free to take my work out of context” when not a lot of her work is really her work to begin with…

  • Richard Finkelstein

    I could have sided with her till I read those tweets which are akin to the ol’ “You should be FLATTERED that I chose to appropriate your work”. That strategy does not speak well to her knowledge of how copyright works. Neither does her view that copyright is not particularly important to HER work speak to her valuation of intellectual property for others.

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  • smalltragedy

    I can’t help but wonder if this were not a play about female representation in the theater if so many artists would still support it? I think the subject matter has everything to do with why we are outraged that Sam French is doing its job at the request of its authors. If this were say, a play about the follies of liberals who objected to the Iraq war, made by someone who used language from a bunch of anti-war plays, would we feel the same way? Or would we be outraged that this writer “stole” the plays without permission? Copyright law is copyright law, if the case goes forward it’ll be resolved (witness Adjmi’s 3C flare up). Until then, it wouldn’t have killed the generators of this piece to approach the writers they were lifting from and ask them to allow them to do it. Or to have at least explored their options prior to creating the piece.But I have seen no evidence that this thought even occurred to them. Frankly, as a producer, it would have been my first question.

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