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Have You Considered Studying Performing Arts Law?

Have You Considered Studying Performing Arts Law?

  • Student Tips
Joanna HughesDec 7, 2016

The world of the performing arts is entertaining, creative, enriching and beautiful. But this world doesn’t exist on its own. There are many forces at work which help artists, performers and other creative types do what they do. One significant factor in sustaining the performing arts industry? The law. Let’s take a closer look at the intersection of law and the performing arts, along with highlighting a few reasons to pursue law studies in this fascinating and fulfilling area.

band spielt auf einer feier, e-Gitarre,

What are the Performing Arts?

According to UNESCO, “The performing arts range from vocal and instrumental music, dance and theatre to pantomime, sung verse and beyond. They include numerous cultural expressions that reflect human creativity and that are also found, to some extent, in many other intangible cultural heritage domains.”

While the performing arts are, indeed, diverse, they share one overarching thing in common: Unlike movies, television and the recording industry, they’re typically performed in front of a live audience. And much like the entertainment industry at large, legal issues do arise along the way. Enter performing arts law.

Intellectual property and digital copyright laws conceptual illustration with copyright symbol and icon and a gavel on blue background.

The Performing Arts and Copyright Law

One of the most important aspects of performing arts law pertains to copyright laws. Simply put, copyrights protect original works of authorship from prohibited or unauthorized use. While musicians are most likely to be victims of copyright infringement, it can occur across the full spectrum of the performing arts.

Consider Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash Hamilton. You’ve been living under a rock if you’ve somehow managed to miss the mega-buzz over this hip-hop rock opera based on America’s founding fathers. The show was sold-out for months; took home 11 Tonys and a Grammy in 2016; and at its heyday commanded an average resale ticket price of $1,300.

But Hamilton would never have come to be -- at least not in its current incarnation -- without copyright laws. In creating Hamilton, Miranda pulled heavily from both the musical theater and hip-hop cannons, paying homage to everything from The Pirates of Penzance to the Notorious B.I.G. with his innovative lyrics. But why was Miranda spared from being prosecuted for these “references” while Pharrell was penalized for doing a similar thing when he “borrowed” from Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” for “Blurred Lines?”

As pointed out by intellectual property litigator Lawrence Iser in a piece he penned for Forbes, the difference largely comes down to copyright law. Says Iser of Miranda’s artistic process, “When drawing on inspiration, [Miranda] gave credit where credit is due. When copying a lyric, he asked for and received permission. And when necessary, he obtained a license (a license called a “Grand Rights” license is required to use another’s musical composition in a stage play). Not only are none of Miranda’s sources of inspiration or lyrics suing Miranda, they are lining up to praise him (and presumably for tickets).” In other words, Miranda was protected because he honored the laws protecting the people and works he drew upon when writing Hamilton.

But Hamilton is just one of many examples of the intersection of copyright law and the performing arts -- beginning from the millisecond an idea is conceived and continuing throughout all of its performances until a work enters the public domain.

Happy singing

A Rapidly Growing Field

While performing arts lawyers have always been in demand for their services pertaining to everything from royalty issues to libel and slander, the evolution of technology is presenting new challenges and opportunities -- especially in the area of copyright law.

As intellectual property specialist Dr. Eleonora Rosati told The Guardian, “IP law, particularly copyright, has boomed over the past few years. The most innovative companies are all heavily IP-focused, and in the creative and technological sectors in particular, the understanding and enforcement of copyright have become key to the growth of certain businesses….A student who wishes to acquire commercial awareness would find the study of copyright law extremely useful for his or her professional development.”

In fact, more than 50 top London law firms now specialize in intellectual property, with plenty of other in-house opportunities available, as well, according to The Guardian. And while many of these are tech-based, others focus on the performing arts.

crowd of people at concert in front of the stage with lights

Real-World Applications in the Creative World

When many people think of careers in law, the word “stuffy” comes to mind. And while there’s no arguing that in order to be a good lawyer you need foundational knowledge of the law (some of which will, inevitably, be “stuffy”), many of those who choose to study performing arts law do so because the practice of performing arts law is very much rooted in the real world. As one recent graduate told The Guardian, “My studies gave me an awareness of why the law should be appreciated by all, not just lawyers.”

For people who are creatively inclined, meanwhile, working in this field means unique immersion in the performing arts world in the form of opportunities to work with everyone from choreographers and composers to ballet dancers and Broadway producers.

And of course, many top law schools are located in or in close proximity to performing arts meccas, with schools like the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, Brooklyn Law School and Fordham University School of Law offering programs for students interested in pursuing law careers specializing in entertainment and/or performing arts law.

Will you be working alongside the next Lin-Manuel Miranda as he brings his genius to life on stage? As a lawyer in this field, you won’t just be practicing law, but you’ll be playing an important role in supporting the visionary work of the world’s next generation of performing artists and creative innovators.

Joanna Hughes

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.