What are the copyright rules governing a stage adaptation?
August 25, 2006 5:29 PM   Subscribe

What copyright issues are associated with writing a stage adaptation of a classic 1950's horror story?

I'm a college student, currently taking a playwrighting class in which the teacher has encouraged us to do adaptations of existing work. I've written some theater pieces in the past and had them performed, but I've never considered writing an adaptation.
My current favorite idea would be an adaptation of the classic 1957 horror novel "I Am Legend" by Richard Matheson.
My question would be, other than as the fulfillment of an assignment, what would be the future of this piece? If I wrote such an adaptation, what would its copyright status be? Is there anything I should look into before writing such an adaptation, if I wanted the piece to possibly have a future outside of the classroom? Would a play more loosely based on the book have less copyright issues than one which followed it strictly?

It's probably important to mention that the novel has been used as the basis for two movies since its publication, The Last Man On Earth with Vincent Price, and The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston.

On a related note, does anyone have any interesting suggestions for horror pieces (or anything interesting works, really) that are in the public domain and could be translated to the stage?
posted by raygan to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
According to wiki, the author is still alive - you can ask him directly. He seems to approve of adaptions of his work, if you read the article.

Also, for your last question, what kind of horror are you interested in? Real-life horror (fatal familial insomnia comes to mind), gothic, lovecraftian, zombic, and/or others, that I cannot think of now?
posted by Jos Bleau at 6:29 PM on August 25, 2006

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend was published in 1954. Works published in the U.S. from 1923 through 1963 with a copyright notice, but not renewed in their 28th year, are in the public domain. However, according to U.S. Copyright office records, I Am Legend was registered July 2, 1954 and renewed November 4, 1982. Accordingly, it will enter the public domain 95 years after its publication date, or in 2049. If you create a derivative work of Matheson's novel, you're going have to license the necessary rights from him to publish or publicly perform your work until 2049.

By the way, a movie based on Matheson's novel, also entitled I Am Legend, is scheduled for release in 2007 (according to IMDB and Wikipedia). As a practical matter, while Matheson might be inclined to overlook a school performance of an unlicensed stage adaptation of I Am Legend, I suspect Warner Bros. won't be as charitable.
posted by RichardP at 6:45 PM on August 25, 2006

You can contact the book publisher to find out who controls which rights, including performance.

Forgive the possibly stupid question, but have you asked your prof about this? If he's encouraging you to write adaptations, and presumably he's a playwright himself, perhaps he or someone he knows has dealt with this type of thing before?
posted by lampoil at 6:59 PM on August 25, 2006

I suggest The Monkey's Paw by W. W. Jacobs.
posted by SPrintF at 7:02 PM on August 25, 2006

On a related note, does anyone have any interesting suggestions for horror pieces (or anything interesting works, really) that are in the public domain and could be translated to the stage?

Perhaps the short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce? It is in the public domain and available online at Project Gutenberg and Wikisource.
posted by RichardP at 7:03 PM on August 25, 2006

But you are right to be careful!

www.blackmask.com/, (Blackmask Online : There are 20281 books for you to choose from!) web distributor of many old horror classics is offline - their last message was "Help! Conde Nast is suing me!" - almost certainly over the Doc Savage and Avenger stories, originally published in the 1930's and 1940's.
posted by Jos Bleau at 7:07 PM on August 25, 2006

Staging An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge would be a serious, serious challenge. You definitely would need to video tape it & put it online if you do. I've seen some excellent stagings of The Monkey's Paw. Same with some of Poe's stuff. Masque of the Red Death would be a fun one, if a little short. I've seen great adaptations of The Telltale Heart as well.

The most terrifying short story I've read, by far, is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I'm not sure how it would fare as a play, but god damn.
posted by devilsbrigade at 9:26 PM on August 25, 2006

Jos: Thanks! Thought he was dead for some reason! That'll teach me not to check Wikipedia. I'm a big fan of "Zombic" and Lovecraftian stuff but the major issue with both is stagability. That's why I love I Am Legend, all of the good stuff takes place at the main character's home.

Poe is emminantly stagable, but he doesn't appeak to me. I'm also interested in westerns. Genre stuff really gets me.

RichardP: Thanks for the heads up on the film. Will Smith? This is a terrible idea. Hope it never comes out.

lampoil: I talked to my professor about it, but she's primarily known for her career writing libretto for children's operas based on fairy tales, and her experience sorting out modern day copyright law is a bit lacking. I can't stand the idea of spending an entire semester writing an adaptation of a children's story, I'd go out of my gourd.

Thanks! I'll read that Yellow Wallpaper story. Any other additional suggestions are welcome!
posted by raygan at 12:29 AM on August 26, 2006

Oooh, quite chilling. But I'm afraid there's no way Yellow Wallpaper could ever function on stage. All the action of the story takes place inside the narrator's head. That's why I love I Am Legend for this assignment; its story, and its horror, is all physicalized.
posted by raygan at 1:08 AM on August 26, 2006

I would recommend "Casting the Runes" by Montague Rhodes James. I wouldn't describe it as the scariest story as written, but it has a strong plot, two strong characters and it can be adapted to stage. It doesn't carry the baggage of everyone knows it like Monkey's Paw.
It was adapted into a very well done movie "Night of the Demon" in the 50s if you want to check out an example of what can be done with it. Since it is such an iconic story, I'm surprised Hollywood hasn't jumped on it several more times.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:51 AM on August 26, 2006

Intersting, raygan. I'm in children's books, myself :)

Actually, some children's lit, especially stuff that would be old enough (or close) to be in the public domain, is some of the creepiest. Last year's New York stage productions of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Shockheaded Peter were pretty damn creepy. And this year's Mary Poppins is supposed to be pretty dark, too. I just read the first Mary Poppins book for the first time--bizarro to say the least. Babies eating people's fingers, a centuries-old lady who creeps into the kids' bedroom and steals their stuff...

Problem being, as I'm sure it is with adult stuff as well, you'd be hard pressed to find something that's suitable, PD, and not already done to death.
posted by lampoil at 2:08 PM on August 29, 2006

« Older Micro webcams.   |   Boldly going... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.