PR reps take down high school production of Hamilton musical, cite copyright


Even covers can be infringement, lawyer says, let alone staging three numbers from a smash-hit Broadway musical like a Scarborough, Ontario high school did. 

Lawyer Bill Northcote has a message for the high school students and teachers in Scarborough, Ont. who staged three numbers from the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, only to have them removed from YouTube:

Be willing to wait for it.

The musical — a hip-hop retelling of the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton — is not yet licensed for amateurs.  

Reproducing it is infringement under the Copyright Act, said Northcote, chair of business law at Shibley Righton LLP in Toronto, and it doesn’t matter that the play is American. The rules are essentially the same.

The singing, rapping and dancing chops of students from Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts earned accolades from around the Internet before the videos were taken down at the request of Hamilton’s PR rep Thursday.

Although a takedown request or cease-and-desist letter usually does the trick in cases like this, the copyright owners could be within their rights to get a court order preventing the school from performing Hamilton any more and could seek damages (monetary compensation) for its unauthorized use, Northcote said.

That is, unless the Wexford kids could successfully argue they qualify for an exception.

One way would be through fair dealing: Copyrighted works may be used for research, private study, education, parody or satire.

Just how much copying is fair is defined case-by-case. Even a cover of a single song can be infringement, and “reproduction of the whole work is certainly not fair,” in the case of a musical, Northcote said.

There’s also a special exception for performances at schools.

But the show has to be primarily by students, for an audience of mainly students and teachers, on school property and not put on for profit. That’s why lip-syncing to the Spice Girls at your school talent show is OK.

But Wexford students performed for the media and posted recordings to YouTube.

The more people see a grifted work, the higher the damages could be, Northcote explained.

Wexford's rendition of the song Right Hand Man had 21,000 views.

This was students' and teachers' “love letter” to Hamilton, the school’s artistic director Ann Merriam told Torstar News Service. They wanted to catch the attention of its cast and creators.

But they hoped it would be in a positive way.

That’s not the same as waiving intellectual property rights, Northcote explained, but could encourage “a false sense of comfort that he won’t mind.”  

It’s reasonable to hold off on allowing amateur productions, Northcote added, especially while Hamilton is still booming on Broadway. It’s part of the creators’ rights to cash in on the time and effort they put into making it.

U.S. and international tours of Hamilton are planned into 2018 and beyond. So it will likely be years before it’s heard at high schools. Current secondary students — young, scrappy, hungry and Hamilton-crazy as they are — may not get their shot at it.

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