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Playwrights back digital principles for theatre

Leading playwrights and WGGB members Caryl Churchill, April de Angelis, Nick Dear, David Edgar, David Eldridge, Lee Hall, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Lucy Kirkwood, Bryony Lavery, Simon Stephens, Sir Tom Stoppard, Jack Thorne and Roy Williams OBE have backed new digital principles for theatre launched today.

Developed jointly by WGGB and the Personal Managers’ Association (PMA), representing literary agents, the principles – Digital delivery of new plays – set out the basis for playwrights’ rights for digital theatre, following an explosion in streaming and other forms of online delivery during the pandemic. They also include a prohibition of ‘in perpetuity’ buyout clauses which override playwrights’ rights to their copyright.

Both WGGB and PMA welcome the opportunities for theatres, playwrights and audiences alike afforded by the new initiatives, but caution that “long-fought-for rights” may be put at risk.

The 15 principles protect writers’ ownership of the copyright in their own work – a right which has been entirely lost in film and partially in television. The 8th principle insists that all rights to deliver new plays digitally should be on the basis of a limited licence, and “shall never be subject to buyouts, or ‘in perpetuity’ or ‘duration of copyright’ clauses”.

In addition, writers should retain control of their texts, fees should be paid on the company’s earnings rather than profits, and writers’ terms shall be equivalent to those in current union contracts. The principles prescribe that licences should never be “download to own” and that managers should take all possible steps to prevent illegal downloading. (Read the full principles here).

WGGB General Secretary Ellie Peers said: “Playwrights in the UK enjoy some of the best rights in the world thanks to the work of their union over many decades. These new principles ensure they remain that way and will make our agreements fit for the digital age, future-proofing them for years to come and ensuring we stay one step ahead of the rapidly evolving theatrical landscape, which is enjoying exciting new opportunities but also immense challenges as a result of Covid-19.”

Former WGGB President and WGGB theatre negotiator David Edgar said: “Digital delivery of stage plays provides thrilling new opportunities for theatre work to reach new audiences. But there’s a danger that current digital deals – aptly described as the ‘wild west’ – are threatening writers’ ownership of their own work, and risking future productions of their work, in theatre and other media.

“WGGB agreements in the subsidised theatre provide the gold standard for playwrights, and we look forward to our digital principles becoming enshrined in those agreements, to benefit and protect all playwrights.”

Charlotte Knight of the Personal Managers’ Association said: “The PMA and the WGGB have worked together to create a defining set of guiding principles for digital theatre in all its forms. While welcoming all the opportunities offered by online theatre, which have been crucial to the lifeblood of our industry during the pandemic, these principles set out to protect writers and their rights in their work, and we hope they will be embraced by theatres and producers.”

WGGB looks forward to discussing these principles with the management bodies with which it has agreements in the subsidised sector. These bodies are UK Theatre (UKT), the Independent Theatre Council (ITC) and the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court (the existing national agreements are available here).

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