Theatre Scene and Trends

Who Owns the Play? – Copyright in Transition

Rimini Protokoll „100 Prozent Berlin“, Hebbel am Ufer Berlin, 2008; © Braun/drama-berlin.deThe concept of the author has changed. A publisher now represents not only the traditional rights of an author, but also the projects of authors and authors’ collectives.

If you think about copyright in 2012, you think about ACTA. Whether for or against, you think about the big controversy over this so-called trade agreement against product piracy. The dispute has been conducted with tremendous public participation. Never before have nearly so many people been interested in copyright issues. There have been demonstrations denouncing the protection of copyright in the Net as censorship. The world has been arguing whether copyright in the age of the Internet is still appropriate. Or, more finely phrased, how it might look in the future.

René Pollesch „Solidarität ist Selbstmord“, Münchner Kammerspiele, 2007; © Arno DeclairIn the theater these questions are completely different. In the theater, producers are increasing asking what the products that are to be protected are or could be at all. Since the dissolution of the text as the central instance of theater, and so of theatrical copyright, the call for the author of a theater piece has become unclear. With the dramatic adaptations of many films and novels the situation is still simple. For these, as for plays, the producers simply pay royalties. This can lead to odd arrangements: for example, when Schorsch Kamerun’s adaptation of Matias Faldbakkens Macht und Rebel (Power and Rebel) contains only two or three sentences from the text, but royalties are paid in full.


Rimini Protokoll „100 Prozent Berlin“, Hebbel am Ufer Berlin, 2008; © Braun/drama-berlin.deThen there are authors such as René Pollesch, who produces his texts in series, but treats them as his own special property: no one else may perform them. Rimini Protokoll also don’t want their texts re-performed by other theater groups. When there were requests for performance rights to their award-winning production Das Kapital (Capital), Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel refused to grant them.

For re-performance of their productions, Rimini Protokoll has created a special format that can be applied anywhere in the world where there are people living in a city: 100 per cent Berlin. One hundred people are selected according to statistical criteria as representatives of the city and brought on stage. This is, as it were, the prototype for transplanting major productions of the new theater. But what in such cases does the author receive, and what not?

A publishing house for new forms of theater

schaefersphilippen: Tobias Philippen and Marc Schäfers; © Meyer OriginalsRimini Protokoll is represented by the theater publisher schaefersphilippen in Cologne. Schaefersphilippen, founded in 2008, is the most important new publishing house in a long time because it takes a completely open approach to new forms of theater. Many of its authors are not “authors” in the customary sense. They include very traditional authors such as Anne Lepper and Nis-Momme Stockmann, but also Rimini Protokoll and PeterLicht, Björn Bicker and Hofmann & Lindholm, Auftrag:Lorey and Hans-Werner Kroesinger, Milo Rau and Anne Tismer, but also traditional authors as Anne Lepper or Nis-Momme Stockmann.

The treatment of copyright is correspondingly different, says Marc Schäfers, one of the two founders of the house. PeterLicht, for example, is extremely cautious about granting rights. “He’s ‘once burnt, twice shy’”, explains Schäfers. Licht comes from the music scene and is still wary of the power of the majors, to whom one always used to transfer the rights more or less forever.

Hofmann&Lindholm; © Verlag schaefersphilippenSimilar, but at the same time very different, is the case of Hofmann & Lindholm, who were initially treated as though they were a sort of Rimini Protokoll. “At the start we had long discussions with them”, says Schäfers. “How will your areas of work be paid? What counts as directing, what as concept, what as text? Gradually, it became clear what was to be done with them authorially.” “Authorial” is Schäfers’s coinage; it leads to the core of the problem.


It’s about the question of remuneration. In negotiations about Björn Bicker’s latest production at the Munich Kammerspiele, all at once the question arose: What are we actually negotiating about here? A play? Research? An attitude? What are services Bicker offers and for which he is to be paid?

Hans-Werner Kroesinger;  © David Baltzer/Bildbühne“The rights of authors must be asserted”, says Schäfers. This applies especially to projects that have much to do with the casting of people who play themselves on stage, a great deal of research, complexifying and concentration work. The experts who collaborate with Rimini-Protokoll, for instance, could be declared co-authors. But to this day there is no known case in theater in which such co-authors have ever received money.

Idea and marketing

Auftrag: Lorey; © Auftrag: LoreyThe core question is: Can these rights be protected? When Lola Arias’s La vida despues, which is about victims of the Argentine military dictatorship, is performed by a Chilean theater group using other people and other stories but the same concept and setting, must the latter pay for this adaptation? The rights of the play belong to the Authors’ Publishing House (Verlag der Autoren), which itself doesn’t know the answer. How strongly marked must a concept be so that it can be protected? At what point does it become “authorial”?

Surprisingly, choreographers turn out to be more authorial than authors. They lay down not only the sequence of movements but also the lighting, setting and costumes. The Authors’ Publishing House represents the rights, for instance, of William Forsythe’s choreographies.

In the theater it is more difficult and uncertain. The pressure to find here a new set of rules is increasing. Several artists, says the Frankfurt copyright lawyer Stefan Mumme, have approached him with the question whether they can protect this or that format. Basically, he says, they can’t, but people can try to build something unique that can be copyright protected into formats which cannot be protected as long as they are mere ideas without the character of a work. This may be seen in the development of television programs. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, for instance, can protect its title, but not the idea of a show about money with a guest and steadily rising stakes. Protecting the title, however, suffices to earn millions.

Peter Michalzik
is a writer and journalist.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
April 2012

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!

Related links


News from Germany’s culture and society

Contemporary German Theatre in Lithuania

Curtain up! A look at Lithuanian theatres that are staging contemporary German plays

Amazonas - Musik theatre in three parts

In three parts, the music theatre play tells of the climate, political and cultural dramas that occur every day in the Amazon region.

After the Fall – Europe after 1989

A European theatre project by the Goethe-Institut on the impact of the fall of the Berlin wall