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Third edition of USA copyright office compendium – Copyrightable Authorship in Dramatic Works

A dramatic work must originate from the author of that work to be protected by copyright. A dramatic work that is merely copied from another source is not copyrightable.

A dramatic work must contain a sufficient amount of creative expression.

Words and short phrases, such as names, titles, and slogans, are not copyrightable because they lack a sufficient amount of authorship. Thus, the title of a dramatic work or dialog that consists of only several words or phrases is not registrable.

A mere idea for a dramatic work – such as “boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl falls in love with someone else” – is not copyrightable because mere ideas are common property.

Scènes à faire are defined as elements of a dramatic work, “which necessarily follow from a common theme,” such as stock characters, settings, or events that are common to a particular subject matter or medium. These types of elements are too commonplace to be copyrightable.

Derivative authorship in dramatic works occurs when copyrightable additions or other changes are made to one or more preexisting works, such as:

  • Revisions, including updating or editing dialog, scenes, and other dramatic elements of a preexisting play.
  • Adapting a novel or motion picture into a play or vice versa.
  • Translating a play from one language to another.

In each case, the author of the derivative work must have permission to use the preexisting work if the preexisting work is protected by copyright, and there must be sufficient new original authorship to register the new work as a derivative work. If it appears that the dramatic work is based on a copyrighted work and permission to use has not been obtained, the registration specialist will communicate with the applicant.

When a novel, story, or poem is adapted into a drama, the adaptation is considered a dramatic work. The U.S. Copyright Office categorizes an adaptation of a dramatic work as a dramatic work, because the work remains dramatic in nature, even if the new material added is nondramatic.

To be considered a derivative work, an adaptation must be based on a preexisting work that constitutes copyrightable subject matter. The Office does not view plays adapted from or based on historical or present day factual events as derivative works because facts are not copyrightable.

A revised dramatic work results when an author revises or adds new dramatic material to a preexisting play. The additions or revisions may be registered as a derivative work to the extent that they contain new original authorship.

A translation of a play or other dramatic work from one language to another is a type of derivative authorship. The U.S. Copyright Office categorizes a translation of a dramatic work as a dramatic work, because the work remains dramatic in nature, even if the new material is nondramatic.

The Office regularly receives applications that claim copyright in the directions for the performance of a dramatic work, separate from the dialog or other elements of that dramatic work. In most cases, the applicant is attempting to register directions for performance on a stage.

Generally, stage directions are not independently copyrightable, although they may constitute an aspect of the overall dramatic work. Because stage directions are completely dependent on a particular dramatic work, a claim in stage directions must be authorized by the author of the dramatic work.

The Office has long held (draft) that copyright protection in stage directions is limited to the text of the directions themselves. When removed from the context of the dramatic work, the directions do not, in and of themselves, constitute dramatic content or give rise to a claim in the simple movements that are dictated by that text.

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