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Thomas Swartz
Thomas Swartz, Lawyer
Category: Intellectual Property Law
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Experience:  Twenty one years experience as a lawyer in New York and New Jersey. Former Appellate Law Clerk.
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Copyright involving writing a fiction novel depicting a musical

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Copyright involving writing a fiction novel depicting a musical theatre show.

My question is if I am writing a fiction novel and my lead characters are actors, how far can I go in terms of describing what is happening if they are acting on stage without breaching copyright?

The example I want to use is Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. My basic understanding is that under fair use I could state they are performing "Phantom of the Opera" but I cannot refer to song titles or any music lyrics. Does this mean the Phantom of the Opera characters are copyrighted too? The novel that the Andrew Lloyd Webber's show is based on is in the public domain as the author died in 1927, but surely Andrew Lloyd Webber has copyright on the characters in terms of the stage show?

There are ways around mentioning song title or lyrics, but it becomes more difficult if I cannot state the play, which characters they are playing or describe the scene.
Can I refer to the lyrics so long as they are not singing the lyrics?
E.g. "I want to rehearse" The director said. "Let's take it from "Down Once More" (down once more being the incriminating song lyrics)

Any light you can shed on this would be much appreciated.

Since the novel Phantom of the Opera is now in the public domain, the story of Phantom of the Opera and the characters in the novel can be used by anyone. The only thing that Andrew Lloyd Webber would have a copyright on would be the music and lyrics from the stage production, as well as the dialog in the stage production. He would not have a copyright on the title "Phantom of the Opera" nor the titles to any particular songs as you can not copyright titles by themselves.

I am not that familiar with either the novel or the stage production, but if there are any new characters presented in the state production, I would avoid using those characters.

And what you are doing is not really copying any significant part of the stage production of Phantom of the Opera. You are just using that as the backdrop of your own unique story which is separate from the stage production itself. So I don't see any infringement.

With respect to using isolated lyrics, I think that is fine as well. Again you are not presenting the lyrics as part of your own songs. Instead you are presenting them as backdrop dialog to your own unique story. And this I believe does not constitute copyright infringement.

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