Rights Grab at The Royal Opera House | Opera reviews, news & interviews
Rights Grab at The Royal Opera House
A shocking new copyright clause looks set to hit artists
For a creator of any kind, keeping control over what happens to their original work is essential. Their creativity is their livelihood, and their reputation is built on it. They protect it fiercely from other people copying it, altering it, selling it - anything in fact which devalues the work and damages the creators’ earning capacity from it.
So it has come as a shock to the entire theatrical design community to find that the Royal Opera House appears to have drawn up a new contract for any new commission which will attack this core principle, which is the basis of English and European copyright law. The ROH is demanding that its entire stable of creative talent – directors, set and costume designers, lighting and special effects designers, even composers, choreographers and librettists - sign over to the Royal Opera House all their copyright in their work there - in perpetuity.
It’s a worrying development for the future of creative work in the UK, which should exercise everyone who wants to see the best of talents at work in opera, ballet and theatre. For this article I have canvassed opinion widely among creative artists, managers, publishers, lawyers – and I will identify no one so as not to jeopardise their position vis-à-vis any future dealings with the Royal Opera House (ROH). Only this past week, the ROH showed its sledgehammer approach to people it thinks step out of line when it attempted to censure an arts blogger for using ROH publicity stills to illustrate ROH productions.
From correspondence that I have seen from the ROH’s Legal and Business Affairs Department, it appears that these “all-rights” contracts for work done for the ROH’s Education Department and for ROH2 are already in place and non-negotiable. I am told that the same conditions are also being required for work to be done in the main house. And this correspondence contains a clear statement from a writer in the Legal and Business Affairs Department that the ROH’s policy is to acquire copyright in all commissions in future.
What effect might this have? If you look at the 2010/11 Royal Ballet season, most of the work programmed was created by choreographers who emerged from within the Royal Ballet – Frederick Ashton, John Cranko, Kenneth MacMillan, Christopher Wheeldon and so on, who are all now considerable names with productions of their work in companies around the world. If they had handed over their copyrights to the ROH when they made their work originally, they would have no benefit from the longevity of their work; they would have no say even on whether other companies could be allowed to perform the work. The ROH would have the decisive word on whether - or if at all - a work created inside it should ever be seen again. Or, at the other extreme, it could override the creators’ unwillingness for a particular theatre or performers to restage that work, or to be performed in another bowdlerised form.
Certainly Tony Hall, ROH Chief Executive, wants the ROH to have its massive popular success: viz the PR push announcing the forthcoming production of Bonnie Greer’s “opera” inspired by her night with the BNP on BBC TV’s Question Time, the Twitter opera, and the February premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ROH commission Anna Nicole – her rise and fall from Playboy model to geriatric billionaire’s wife (with scandals, sex, lawsuits) to her early death.
Redesigning, merchandising, incomplete stagings, digital versions: all examples where the original creators will lose power to ensure their work is seen in the context they intended
Turnage’s librettist is Richard Thomas, author and composer of Jerry Springer, the Opera which achieved more column inches of publicity than any new work from the conventional opera scene. A show which started in workshop at the Battersea Arts Centre, was acclaimed at the Edinburgh Fringe, went on the National Theatre for a successful run, a DVD, transfer to the West End, touring, and productions elsewhere in the world. Under the new ROH rights contracts, the progress of such a edgy production would be left entirely in the hands of the monolithic opera house, and it would capture the future benefits of any emerging talents from the start.
It is frustrating for the Opera House that perhaps the most critical element of new operas they commission - the score - will fall outside their rights contracts, since composers in general have already assigned their rights to their publishers. In Turnage’s case, this is the mighty Boosey & Hawkes, who as part of the deal make the scores, hire out the instrumental parts, promote their composers’ work worldwide, and ensure they have an income from performance of the music.
However the net cast by the contract over the remainder is wide. The redesigning of an original Royal Ballet creation for performance in a different company; the use of an incomplete production on stage without key elements of the original; the merchandising of iconic designs as tea-cups, dolls or fancy dress; the staging of an exhibition of costumes; the licence to make a cartoon or digital version of a stage production; even a decision by the creators that the ROH should no longer be entrusted with the staging of a production - these are all examples where the original creators would lose any power to ensure their work was seen in the context and standards that they approved of.
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