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by Michael Imison

Not long after I took over the management of the agency which handles copyright for the Noel Coward Estate I found that there was a producer touring PRIVATE LIVES who had not gone through the formality of applying for a licence.  When challenged he replied that he thought such an old play would be out of copyright.   Sadly for him, and anyone else who would like to exploit the copyrights without paying, Coward's work is protected under European law until 2043, seventy years after the date of his death. *

This means that anyone who wishes to make any use of it must get permission and if required make an appropriate payment.  This applies to all uses including readings and performances given for charity. Nor, as some teachers seem to believe, are school performances exempt.  It must be remembered that a writer's works are his assets, on which his income, or that of his estate after his death, depends.  Any performance or publication on however small a scale diminishes the novelty of the work, and hence its sale value, so it is right that the writer should always be compensated.

Normally permission will be given by an agent acting for the author or his estate and in the case of the Coward Estate I can assure you that all requests are considered carefully in the light of all the circumstances. Some times however the writer may no longer control the rights in question. Film rights, which almost invariably include all audio-visual reproduction rights, may be sold outright to a producer and the writer no longer has any say in what is done with them. This is known as an Assignment of Copyright. For example, Coward sold PRIVATE LIVES outright and therefore any permission to film or televise the play has to go to the new owner or his successors.   This explains why most requests for permission to make video recordings of amateur productions of plays have to be refused. And, even when film rights in a play have yet to be sold, because most purchasers will require a warranty that the audio-visual rights have not been previously exploited, the agent will not want to authorise anything that might be damaging to a sale, even remotely.

Another right often disposed of is the right to quote from a work. Usually this is acquired by the publisher of the work to whom application should be made.  There are some exceptional cases where permission to quote is not required.  Broadly these are when the quotation is not substantial or what is known as fair dealing. However care is needed even here.  Several sentences of a novel say might not be regarded as substantial but in the case of a lyric three words might be.  An advertisement on the lines of "Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington - send her to Bloggs Employment Agency" would certainly attract the attention of the Coward Estate's lawyers.

Fair dealing is usually regarded as quotation for the purposes of scholarship or review.  Clearly a theatre reviewer, or a professor teaching a course or publishing a book about a writer,  needs to be able to quote.  However this needs to be within reason.  A biographer who shall be nameless sent for approval a biography of Coward that relied on extensive passages of Coward's own published autobiography and diaries and well-known quotes from other works without adding any particular insights of its own.  I felt justified in refusing the Estate's permission and though the biography was still published the amount of quotation was substantially reduced, presumably on legal advice.

Other rights which songwriters dispose of, in this case, to collection agencies are the so called small rights, the rights to perform individual songs in various situations such as in cabaret, or concerts or on radio or television.  These are basically dealt with under blanket licences the income from which is divided among all the writers according to  their relative popularity.   These licences are by their nature non-exclusive.  However when songs by one or more writer are put together to form a grand rights work for performance in theatres, such as COWARDY CUSTARD, or NOEL AND COLE, then the collecting society will on request surrender its rights back to the writer allowing an exclusive licence to be established for the protection of the producer.

Accordingly the Coward Estate and not PRS controls the right to use Coward songs in such compilation works.  This has proved very necessary as Coward's work lends itself very easily to this sort of anthology and without the strictest control we would have a proliferation of Coward collections, all differing from each other only slightly, and creating endless difficulties.  Generally, therefore, permission to create new compilations is refused.

Finally I think I need to make clear the position about the copying of audio-visual materials.  It is well known that for instance the taping of a television broadcast to allow it to be seen at a more convenient time is permitted by the law while the copying of a rented video is not.  The same I am afraid applies to film, video and sound recordings no longer available commercially.  These are not for that reason out of copyright any more than a book that is out of print is.  Making such copies renders the person doing so liable to legal action by the producer of the material as well as by the performers and the writers.  From time to time recordings made in this way of works by Coward have been offered commercially and the Coward Estate has always moved vigorously to protect its interests.

Coward enthusiasts should therefore beware of acquiring audiovisual material unless they can be sure the person offering it has the right to do so.

Additionally, the right to photocopy from the plays or sheet music is not permitted. For the plays applications will need to be made to the publisher whilst for the sheet music, applications should be made to Coward's Music publisher Warner Chappell. For all the other rights mentioned above application should be made to the estates agents, Alan Brodie Representation Ltd.

* The copyright period is different in the USA and some other countries.