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Groundbreaking principles established for digital broadcast of stage plays

WGGB has agreed a groundbreaking set of principles to govern the digital broadcasts of stage plays by the Royal Court, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.

Working with colleagues in the Personal Managers’ Association (literary agents), WGGB has negotiated seven principles with the three theatres (known as the TNC), which it is hoped will inspire best practice in digital broadcast throughout the sector.

The principles protect playwrights following the explosion in livestreaming and other forms of digital delivery of stage plays post-Covid.

The principles state that playwrights do not have to grant the digital rights in their play if they don’t want to; and, if they do grant these rights, require separate negotiations on upfront fees, advances, and, where appropriate, royalties.

Negotiations on pay will have to take into account audience size, reach, the time window and distribution model of the delivery. Buy-outs of rights are prohibited, except in certain educational settings, while spin-off film and television rights will also remain with the writer.

The writer will also have the right to be creatively consulted on the digital capture and production process to protect the textual integrity of their original script.

The three theatres have also committed themselves to taking any commercially reasonable steps to prevent illegal downloading/piracy.

View the full principles here.

The seven principles have been negotiated with the three theatres in response to  the launch of WGGB’s publication Digital Delivery of New Plays in September 2021. The union’s response to the impact of Covid on the theatre sector won the support of a number of leading playwrights, including 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 (read the full story).

Negotiations are continuing with UK Theatre and other theatre management bodies to spread the principles through the sector.

WGGB General Secretary Ellie Peers said:

“We welcome the new opportunities for audiences afforded by the digital delivery of stage plays, and support the resilience of the theatre sector in responding to the ravages wrought by Covid.

“However it is imperative that these developments do not lead to an erosion of the long-fought-for rights of playwrights, who in the UK enjoy unprecedented protections due to the work of WGGB in negotiating agreements with the major theatres and management bodies.

“These new principles therefore represent a major landmark in the protection of writers’ rights in the digital age. They also pay testimony to the collective power of our union and its members who, against a backdrop of Covid and a cost-of-living crisis, and in a sector which is powered by self-employed writers, have steadfastly stood together to protect their rights and those of their colleagues.”

David Edgar, award-winning playwright and former President of the WGGB, who has led on the negotiations of the new principles said: “Digital delivery of stage plays is a really exciting development in theatre, attracting new audiences for freelance writers, actors and creatives. But the way some writers have been paid for their work – or not paid – has been rightly dubbed ‘the wild west’.

“WGGB has now negotiated a pioneering agreement with three of Britain’s leading theatre companies, establishing the basic principles of how writers should be paid when their stage plays are shown online. The agreement establishes that writers should be paid properly, should be consulted about how their work is broadcast, and that their copyright ownership should always be protected.”

Emma Keith, Director of Digital Media, National Theatre, said:

“We’ve been delighted to see the response from audiences who engaged digitally with our productions during the pandemic, including those who have been unable to experience our work live on the South Bank and on tour, and to bring the joy of theatre directly into people’s homes. Since the launch of NT Live in 2009, the NT has remained committed to supporting playwrights and theatre-makers in the digital delivery of our productions. As the effects of the pandemic continue to impact ways in which we can engage our audiences, we’re pleased to have formalised these existing principles with the WGGB to continue reaching audiences around the world in cinemas, schools, libraries, at home and beyond.”

Lucy Davies, Executive Producer at the Royal Court, said:

“We welcome these mutually agreed principles which align our three theatres and the WGGB, and we value the important conversations we have had to get here. We know that writers want and need us to be making digital work happen ambitiously and equitably, and we hope these principles inspire confidence for exciting hybrid futures.”

Kevin Wright, Head of Commercial Development, Royal Shakespeare Company, said: 

“We want to share our work with the widest possible audience, and we know our audiences want to experience our productions digitally. Protecting writers’ rights is fundamental, and this set of principles does exactly that, providing a basis for future collaborations in the digital world as well as on the stage.”