10 questions: Gordon P. Firemark

1) What the fuck is going on?
Everything, nothing, and all points between.

The Theatre business in America has been booming . . . Broadway grosses have been hitting all-time highs, and new shows are coming out of Los Angeles, Toronto and numerous other cities. We’ll have to wait and see what happens with the current changes in the economy . . . The last couple of weeks have been scary for everybody.

2) What’s the most challenging part of being an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles?

3) What are some of the big stories in theatre law in the U.S.?
Box Office is up.

Costs are up.

Financing of theatre is getting trickier.

Labor strikes and threatened strikes have kept us all on pins and needles for the past year or so.

Directors claiming copyright of ‘stage directions’.

The Urinetown cases.

Producers of small productions are grabbing up subsidiary rights. Other, larger theatre companies are making the decision to leave subsidiary rights on the table.

4) Do you have any unifying theories about American law and its relationship to the arts?
Unifying theories? Huh?

I guess I’d have to say it this way: “Good art benefits from freedom.”

Our legal system is centered around the protection of freedoms. Key among the rights protected in our system is Freedom of Expression. Without this freedom, many great plays wouldn’t have been created, for fear of reprisals from government for the ideas expressed. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for good art to be created in a repressive society, but it’s just easier when government stays out of the way.

Recently, we’ve started to see some encroachments on freedom of expression, and these are points of concern. Most significantly, I’m thinking of City and State anti-smoking laws being extended to theatres, so actors can’t smoke on stage.

Here in California (and elsewhere), there’s also been some talk about banning incandescent lighting. This would put a big crimp on the artistic use of light, at least until there’s more innovation on the technology front . . . which I guess is a good argument either way.

Still, I think anytime you see a “ban”, it’s got the potential to be a significant limitation on freedoms. We have to tread very carefully.

5) What are some of the key copyright issues to keep in mind for bloggers?
Copyright protection belongs to the “author” of the work. In the context of blogging, this means that the blogger owns the post (provided it’s not copied from somewhere else), and the layout/design of the site, but comments may belong to the commenters. Terms of Service should be clear about the scope of license granted to the blogger. Also, bloggers should be careful when ‘quoting’ or ‘paraphrasing’ other material found on the net. Be sure to re-express the ideas in your own words wherever possible. Using photos and graphics found on the net is a particular pitfall. I’ve recently seen some folks get into hot water with stock-photo agencies. Be sure to get a license for every image you use.

6) Who owns this interview?
Good question. I think, since I’m writing these answers, I own the copyright to them . . . but it’s implicit in the nature of the situation that I’m giving you a license to publish my answers in your blog. The real question, then, is what ELSE can you do with this material? What if you want to turn your blog articles into chapters for a book? Republish in a magazine, your theatre’s programs, etc?

I think the answer is, you have to ask me for each re-use.

It would be different if we were sitting together or on the phone, and you were recording the interview, or taking notes, etc. Then, you’d be the “author”.

7) Why does theatre deserve public funding?
Theatre deserves public funding because it serves several valuable functions in our society. One function is historical. Theatre is an art form that helps preserve a ‘snapshot’ of the playwright’s (and presumably a portion of society’s) view of the world at the time it’s created. As later generations study the plays and musicals of today, they’ll learn how we were thinking about the issues of the day, and hopefully learn from what we’ve created.

Another function is the preservation of minority voices. I think it’s important for controversial and unpopular views to see the light of day. Public funding of the arts (not just theatre, but all art forms) allows this to happen when private funding is scarce. Public funding of ideas allows for the continued vitality of the marketplace for ideas.
8) How similar is entertainment law between Canada and the United States?
I think the similarities far outweigh the differences. Entertainment has become a global industry, and entertainment law is really international in its scope. Most of the legal principles entertainment lawyers rely on are the product of long-standing principles in most legal systems, or have been established by treaties, and other international organizations. The rest of what entertainment lawyers rely on is a depth of knowledge of the industries and markets in which they work.

9) What’s one of the most common legal mistakes you see smaller, independent theatre companies making?
Making “cuts” to the text of a play they’re producing under license. Most of the time these licenses don’t allow for any changes whatsoever.

Another has to do with financing. Commercial theatre financing is done through investments . . . but most small producers don’t follow the rules when soliciting investors. Unfortunately, the rules are complicated, but they’re there to protect the investors, so we have to follow them. On the non-profit side, it’s simpler, but still sometimes tricky.

10) From your experiences working with artists in all fields, how much truth have you found there to be in the notion that artists are somehow naturally flakier than other kinds of professionals?
I think it’s more accurate to refer to artists as craftspeople than “professionals”. To folks in other businesses, Artists may seem “flaky”, but most artists are very disciplined in the way they practice their crafts. The real disconnect arises from what I think of as the ‘artistic temperament’. Many artists are so consumed by, and immersed in, their art, that they lose sight of the ordinary expectations of society, day-to-day things like sitting down to pay your bills, returning phone calls, attending to “business” matters. For some artists, I think these kinds of activities drain important energy away from the creative “flow” that’s important to making good art.

That’s why there are agents, managers, business managers and lawyers (like myself) who help artists by taking care of the “business” so the artist can stay in that creative “flow”. The most business-like decision an artist can make is to recognize the need for a team of professional advisers.

Read more from Gordon Firemark at his website: Law Offices of Gordon P. Firemark.