What is Urinetown? Or, more accurately, What is a license to perform Urinetown?
What is Urinetown? Or, more accurately, What is a license to perform Urinetown?
What is Urinetown? Or, more accurately, What is a license to perform Urinetown?

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    What is Urinetown? So asks the opening song of the second act of “Urinetown: The Musical.” It turns out, however, the real question is: “So what did I actually get when I paid for a performance license for Urinetown: The Musical.”

    Not to engage in
    too much exposition, but apparently, it's a
    privilege to pee, dance, and arrange lights in the same manner as the original production. At least, so says the original creative team that put together the Tony Award winning musical. Joined by their relevant unions, they have demanded that two midwest performancesof the show compensate them for using identical choreography, direction and lighting. While acknowledging that the productions had paid for a performance license, the original creative team allege that the show was apparently too faithful to the original and that the original director, choreography director, and lighting director should be compensated for their creative contributions (although the unions and creative folks insist this is about principle, not money).

    I confess to some puzzlement. While certainly the folks licensing the show were free to follow their hearts when restaging it, why doesn't the performance right include a right to replicate the original performance as closely as possible? Why sing the copyright cop song because people licensing a performance right expect to replicate the existing performance.

    Sure, choreography and directing take creativity and work. So what? Copyright is not based on compensating people for the “sweat of their brow” or to ensure a perpetual sinecure for one good idea. These directors did a job, for which they got paid. They even won awards. Go them! But how much more reward do they need? Or is the notion that all those folks who actually directed, did lighting, etc. of the midwest shows did not add sufficient value, and therefore the original creative team feel that the midwest folks are “unjustly enriched” by 'copying' the assorted 'creative elements' of the original in a way not covered by the performance license?

    In any event, I see a river of lawsuits if the courts do not snuff that claim. How different does a show need to be to avoid an allegation that the various creative elements are neither copied nor derived from the original performance? What about creators that want their works exactly reproduced and seek to prevent any changes in presentation they find inappropriate? Do actors likewise have an interest in the way they performed their roles? If we buy this theory, how many people will the local high scool need to negotiate with for its next performance of some licensed broadway musical? And doesn't copyright require that the expression of the idea be set in a “fixed form”? Aren't the expressions of the ideas about direction and lighting inherently transient? Heck, they change every night of the performance (twice on Sundays).

    It would be nice to imagine this is a misguided naive creative team who will some day ask of their lawyer's advice to persue this action: “why did we listen to that man?” Alas, this appears to be only the latest example of people, inspired by the success of the RIAA, MPAA, and others, who have come to believe that they have a right to any possible revenue in any way related to any creative project they once touched. As I have written in the context of the law suit against Google Library, this is rather like the old folk tale of the baker who wants to be paid for the smell of his baking bread.

    I hope the two midwest shows in question will reply that they're not sorry. To encourage them, and do my bit to help freedom run, I close with this fair use parody blog finale.

    To the tune of “What Is Urinetown”

    What is Urine Town? Urinetown's a show.

    A copyrighted work that you can license for some dough.

    But if you hope the license scope

    Will cover dance and sound

    They'll send a pack of lawyers to shut down your Urinetown.

    [They'll send a pack of lawyers To shut down your Urine

    Town, Town, Town, Town, Town]

    Dance? No!

    This does not cover dance!

    Or where you shine the lights or how the actors take a stance!

    Direction and lighting, choreography

    All of these require separate fees!

    What is copyright? Copyright's a tool.

    Not an instrument of power to enforce some iron rule.

    Although you fret your brain and sweat

    Created value here

    You cannot use the copyright to lock up your idea.

    Dance, dance, you think you own the dance?

    Without dancers and musicians it would never have a chance.

    We all contribute value to the final product shown.

    There's limits on what you can claim you own!

    Where does all this end? Who will perform or write

    If Congress locks up every word or thought in copyright?

    So join the fight, protect your right,

    to creativity,

    Restore the balance to copyright, if you like being free.