Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Fisk and Salter on the Law of Playwrights and Theatre Producers

Catherine Fisk, University of California, Berkeley School of Law, and Brent Salter, Stanford Law School, have posted Assumptions about Antitrust and Freelance Work and the Fragility of Labor Relations in the American Theatre, which is forthcoming in the Ohio State Law Journal:

Lee Shubert (NYPL)
As we look for examples of collective self-regulation in a gig economy, commercial theatre offers a century of experience with freelance work. Yet the Dramatists Guild and commercial theatre producers have negotiated collectively for nearly a century under a cloud of legal uncertainty at the intersection of antitrust law and labor law that dates to the pre-New Deal era. The revival of theatre after the catastrophe of the pandemic provides an opportunity to reconsider the four longstanding but unnecessary assumptions about antitrust, labor law, and copyright law that have shaped organizational structures and mediated relations between stage producers and writers:

Assumption #1: Playwrights, unlike actors or directors, cannot unionize under the National Labor Relations Act because playwrights are independent contractors.

Assumption #2: Playwrights must have the legal status of independent contractors under federal labor law, lest they lose control of the copyrights in their work under the work for hire provisions of the 1976 Copyright Act.

Assumption #3: Unionization of playwrights is not merely unprotected by the National Labor Relations Act (see Assumption #1), but it is affirmatively prohibited by federal antitrust law.

Assumption #4: The precarious legal status of playwrights as outlined in Assumptions 1-3 is necessary to protect their creative autonomy. Whatever economic security and stability writers could attain if the Dramatists Guild were a union and if there were real collective bargaining would be at the cost of dramatists’ creative freedom, independence, and ability to prevent the rewriting of their work. In short, to be a real artist, a dramatist necessarily must run the risk of being impecunious.

This article offers a detailed history, based on previously unavailable archival sources, of the origin of these assumptions, and how writers, producers, and various intermediaries struggled to create a functional system in the face of legal doubt. The history shows why it is time to abandon the assumptions about the significance of antitrust and copyright law in structuring relations between writers and producers.

--Dan Ernst