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Third edition of USA copyright office compendium – dramatic works

For purposes of copyright registration, a dramatic work is a composition generally in prose or verse that portrays a story that is intended to be performed for an audience such as plays, musicals, or operas. Generally, a dramatic work represents the action as it occurs rather than simply narrating or describing the action. Some dramatic works include music.

For the purposes of copyright registration (draft), dramatic works are distinguished from nondramatic literary works, such as novels, which are not intended to be performed for an audience. Other examples of nondramatic literary works include sermons and lectures, which are intended to be performed for an audience, but do not tell a story.

Dramatic works with accompanying music are distinguished from nondramatic musical works that do not convey a story. Operas and musicals are examples of dramatic works with accompanying music that tell a story. A symphony is an example of a nondramatic musical work that does not tell a story.

Although motion pictures, choreographic works, and pantomimes may contain dramatic elements and may qualify as dramatic works, these types of works are considered separate categories of copyrightable authorship, and as such they do not have to fall within the category of dramatic works in order to be registered.

Characteristic elements of dramatic works include plot, characters, dialog, and directions for performance, although each element is not necessarily registrable in and of itself.

Plot is the storyline, plan, or sequence of events in a dramatic work. As a general rule, plot is not registrable in and of itself, because it represents only an idea rather than the expression of an idea. Where a plot is sufficiently detailed and/or the author selects and arranges an original sequence of events, it may be possible to register the descriptive text.

A character is a person, animal, or even an inanimate object that is used to portray the content of a dramatic work. The copyright law does not protect the name or the general idea for a character. However, the Office may issue a registration based on the authorship describing, depicting, or embodying a character.

Dialog is the conversation between characters in a dramatic work. A monolog is a speech by a single character in a dramatic work. Stage directions and directions for performance generally refer to the instructions for the actors’ movements, gestures, and dramatic action, and/or suggestions for scenery. Directions include stage business and blocking.

Stage business refers to activity performed by the actors to illustrate character or create dramatic effect, such as rolling up one’s sleeves or tapping a pencil. Stage business may be created by the playwright, the director, and/or the actor. Stage business is not registrable in and of itself because it represents common body movements which are not subject to copyright protection.

Choreography and pantomime are the only categories of works comprised exclusively of certain types of bodily movements that are eligible for copyright protection under Section 102(a) of the Copyright Act. Blocking refers to the positioning and movement of actors onstage or in frame, such as “cross to stage left.” Blocking may be created by the playwright and/or the director. Blocking is not registrable in and of itself because it represents common movements which are not subject to copyright protection.

Dramatic works may include accompanying music, such as musical plays or operas. Music in a dramatic work ranges from incidental music to music that advances the story. Music also may be used as an adjunct rather than integral part of a dramatic work, such as a tape of a preexisting song played in the background of a particular scene.

Illustrations of costumes, scenery, sets, props, and lighting may be included in a dramatic work. If the illustrations are copyrightable, they may be registered as visual arts works. A textual description of such works may also be registered as a literary work, but the registration does not extend to the costume, prop, set or lighting itself.

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