A theatrical license is an agreement between a music user and the owner of a copyrighted composition (song) that grants permission to use the music in a play, musical, dance, opera, narration, or other dramatic performance. This permission is sometimes referred to as theatrical rights and grand rights (though grand rights typically entail bundled permissions for a theatrical production).
Do I Need a Theatrical License?
Whenever you use a song that someone else wrote in a play, musical, dance, opera, narration, or any other type of dramatic performance with visual elements such as costumes, props, or set pieces, you will need a theatrical license directly from the copyright holder.
A theatrical license is required no matter how small a portion you use. There are some exceptions where a theatrical license is not required: You don't need a theatrical license for songs or shows that you wrote yourself or songs that are in the public domain.
If you use an original sound recording belonging to someone else (for example, an actual Beatles recording featuring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison) you will need a theatrical license to pay the composer for the right to use the composition (song), and also a master license to pay the artists for the right to use the recording. This is true even if you are using only a very small portion of any existing copyrighted audio recording.
If you display lyrics or music notes in your production you will also need a print license to pay the composer for the right to display the composition (song).
If you make a video recording of your production (YouTube, DVD, Blu-ray), you will also need a synchronization license to pay the composer for the right to use the composition (song) in a video.
If you make an audio-only recording of your production (CDs, digital downloads, interactive audio streams), you will also need a mechanical license to pay the composer for the right to use the composition (song) in an audio recording.
How Do I Get a Theatrical License?
Theatrical licenses are custom-negotiated directly with the copyright holder upfront and can be quite complex. For help with this process, check out our Custom Licensing services or contact us. Alternatively, you can attempt to locate the copyright owners yourself and request permission.
For out-of-the-box stage productions, such as high school musicals, view this list of agencies that can help you get permission. For several popular Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, visit RNH.com.
Challenges of Obtaining Theatrical Licenses
Note that theatrical licensing can be challenging because, by law, theatrical rights holders maintain total control of their works when it comes to dramatic productions. This means they can set any price, take all the time they want, or reject the license altogether. Many factors affect the response, including budget, use, and even the current workload of the copyright holder’s processing department. For this reason, it is important to temper expectations when requesting a theatrical license.
Who Gets Paid?
A theatrical license pays a royalty to the copyright holder (owner) of the composition (song). This is typically the composer or their publisher. However, sometimes rights are sold. If theatrical rights are sold, a song might have a new owner, other than the original composer or publisher. For this reason, it is important to locate the current copyright holders before making a theatrical license request. When you hire us for Custom Licensing, we research and discover the current copyright holders for you.
When Should I Have My Theatrical Licensing in Place?
Theatrical licenses must be secured before any public display of the production. However, because theatrical rights can be hard to get, we suggest making your request many months before your anticipated production date. It is also smart to have at least one backup plan in place, in case you are unable to get the theatrical rights you want. We offer strategic planning as part of our Custom Licensing services. Discover efficient solutions and avoid costly detours by leveraging our experience and expertise.
What Happens if I Don't Get a License?
We are not in the business of enforcement. However there are publishers, labels, and third parties out there who do actively seek out copyright violators. The result can be permanent damage to your reputation, stopping of the production, and in some cases legal action. Will you get caught? Maybe. Maybe not. But there are many more reasons to do things right than just the fear of getting caught. Check out all our reasons to get a license.