About Sarah Mattie

Sarah Mattie is a middle school theatre teacher--her dream job!--and a theatre teaching artist. She has also worked as a language arts teacher, an ELL aide, an elementary librarian, a substitute, and a stage manager. She has three special needs cats and one typical cat, who does not get the appreciation he deserves, and a very patient husband.

Recently, North Bergen High School in New Jersey put on a production of Alien: The PlayThe show was clearly beautifully done, with the students building massive and accurate sets and costumes out of nothing but recycled materials. The show was a big hit and brought in a good deal of money for the previously-fundless drama club at that school.

So, what’s the problem?

By all accounts, the school did not pay 20th Century Fox/Disney for the rights to produce the show. (If I am proven wrong, I apologize to North Bergen, but I urge other schools to use this piece as a reminder and warning.) I am not here to talk about the intricacies of copyright laws for school performances; if you are interested in that topic, a succinct piece can be found here.

The students are not at fault here. The students were given a work and created something astonishing with it. They showed an amazing amount of ingenuity and skill in creating their sets, costumes, and other materials. I can almost guarantee none of them were ever taught about copyright laws at any point in their K-12 careers, and even if it was mentioned, they had full faith their teachers would not force them to be party to breaking the law.

As such, we need to turn the spotlight onto the adults involved. There were three teachers directly involved with the production, as well as any number of administrators and board members who may have approved this production. I find it hard to believe that not a single one of the adults involved have never thought of the legal problems that may arise. This could be an issue of ask for forgiveness, not permission, but there are times where that is simply not okay…especially when you are asking students to participate in something illegal!

Undermining Arts Careers

Refusing to pay artists undermines the very idea that art is a job. If you don’t get paid for something you do, it is at best a volunteer gig, at worst a hobby. There is nothing wrong with hobbies, and if you love to draw or write on your own time, that’s great! That said, ask any artist (or arts teacher!) what people have said to them when they told them of their career. Every single one will respond with a version of “Oh, That’s FUN!”, “I did that when I was in elementary school!” or “Isn’t that more of a hobby?”

Undermining the idea that the arts are careers at the school level means the students are taught to treat artists this way and that their own artistic career dreams are irrational. The students could easily become the internet bullies saying, “Do it for the exposure!” They could be the ones who decide to not create works of art of any sort because it’s “not a job.”

Potential Problems for the School

I am passionate about this issue because of the number of teachers who have to battle their school administrators about the need to pay for rights to and fulfill contracts for shows.

Can’t you just do it? No one will find out!

If you advertise for a show, if a single person writes on social media about it, if a whisper gets out, there’s a good chance someone will find out.

I don’t get why it’s so expensive; we are a SCHOOL after all. Won’t they let you do it for free?

No. We don’t steal textbooks just because we are schools. We shouldn’t steal other written works.

Or, worst of all…

Fine, then can’t you just write your own show?

I’m not a playwright. Even if I was, plays take months of work and, like any other artist, I deserve to get paid for that work.

The fact is schools and community theatres have been sued for putting on shows without paying for rights. In July 2018, Music Theatre International (a company commonly used by schools) sued Theaterpalooza Community Theater Productions, a youth theatre, in Virginia for producing many of their shows. Disney, which owns the rights to Alien, is notorious for keeping a close eye on their work and has a reputation for being highly litigious. If you are interested in more, you can see a (very long) list of lawsuits that have occurred over copyright infringement, and their results, compiled by a Creative Commons Certified Librarian, here. Publishers take their property rights seriously.

The chance of lawsuits puts the schools in legal and financial jeopardy, of course, but it also puts the teacher at risk of losing their jobs and their reputations. If a teacher loses both, they will likely have a hard time finding work in schools, theaters, or other areas. They will be “that guy who didn’t pay the writer,” and even “that guy who broke the law.” Trust is broken. (If you are working for a school or district that doesn’t seem to care about this, get out NOW!) And, this will make the news. Period.

Setting a Precedent

As we understand it, the fact is that the school broke the law and is being praised for it.

I’m going to be “that guy” 20th Century Fox/Disney should send a cease and desist letter to North Bergen High School. In speaking to several other theatre teachers, I have found I am not alone in this belief.

I do not believe they should sue unless the cease and desist is ignored. The students do not deserve to lose the money they have worked so hard to earn. I believe Fox/Disney should do this because not doing so sets a bad precedent for script publishers. It tells teachers and community theatres that publishing companies are absolutely fine with theatres taking shows without payment and performing them, usually while charging for tickets. It undermines the idea that playwrights and screenwriters have jobs they deserve to get paid for. The “starving artist” and “hobby” ideas could easily drive excellent writers out of the field.

Worse still, they are encouraging students to ignore these laws in the future. If it worked once, it could work again…until it doesn’t, and someone gets hurt because we didn’t teach them differently.

I am not arguing for anyone to be fired. Mistakes were made, and the higher-ups at the school at least as culpable as the teachers. Losing teachers the kids clearly adore would also cause a real community issue within the school, and that’s not fair to the students. The teachers should not take the fall for this.

That said, the performances need to end, North Bergen High School needs to chalk this up to experience, and, next time, use some of the money they earned from this run to pay a fabulous writer for their work.

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