I’ve heard horror stories. There’s one about a federal official who caught a band teacher photocopying sheet music. The school was fined $10,000 and the band director lost his job. True story? I don’t know, but it’s evident from the FBI warning at the beginning of that Bill Nye video I show every year that copyright infringement is serious stuff.
This got personal for me when the criminal underworld started pirating my plays, apparently in an attempt to turn a fast buck (which is ironic, given that I have yet to make a fast buck from writing these things). A thoughtful reader contacted me about it after discovering a site where my play, Stolen Childhoods, could be illegally downloaded.
I immediately went into sleuth mode, quickly tracking down the offending site, fully prepared to fire off a cease and desist e-mail or maybe even call the 1-800 number on that Bill Nye video. I quickly discerned, though, that the “criminal” was merely a middle school language arts teacher who’d posted my play online for her students to read as a homework assignment. Seemed innocent enough to me. Here was a hard-working middle school teacher using my work as the centerpiece of what looked like a pretty significant unit of study about child labor during the Great Depression. I was flattered. And yet, this did indeed represent a copyright infringement.
I’m a great fan of technology. I use it extensively with my own students, and I want to encourage others to do the same. But I suspect we could all use a little tutoring when it comes to copyright infringement on the web. If you want to post one of my plays on your classroom website, go for it. However, please toss in a few safeguards. Consider password protecting your site, adding a watermark to the posted-PDF, and at the very least, including a highly-visible warning that ONLY your students have legal authorization to download (maybe one showing a big badge like they have on the FBI warning!).
Another reader recently asked me if I’d develop a play based on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s THE Great American Novel as well as a significant player in the high school literary canon. Frankly, I’d love to craft a play around it.
But I can’t. It would be an infringement. Because To Kill a Mockingbird is still under copyright, without the permission of the copyright owner, I don’t have the right to sell any such adapt ion. This makes me wonder about a host of other reader’s theater scripts for sale on TpT. From Charlie Brown to Charlotte’s Web to Dr. Seuss…I wonder just how “legal” such products really are.
Know that every play I produce has been legally adapted. What’s more, most all of them have previously appeared in Scope and Storyworks, meaning my wonderful editors and diligent fact-checkers at Scholastic have gone over them with a magnifying glass and a copy of the Chicago Elements of Style.
All my plays also come with reproduction and performance rights. The original purchaser is licensed to print a full classroom set for use in his or her classroom once each year. And those same students are licensed to perform it, whether in the gym or the Performing Arts Center over on Ethel Merman Boulevard. That’s not the case with scripts appearing in most drama magazines or with plays available from theater publishers. Their terms require you to purchase expensive performance rights—even if you’re an underfunded school.
I didn’t ask that middle school teacher to remove my play from her site. I don’t want to discourage her from using my play or technology, and for the most part, her classroom site is difficult to find. My hope is that, like the reader who reported it to me, my customers will respect the copyright notice clearly printed on each play and purchase legal versions. To those of you who respect copyright, thank you!