The no-photos rule taken too far: intellectual property in the theatre

At a performance of Wolf Hall recently, I took a few photos of the cast during the curtain call. An usher ran over and shouted “no photographs!”, so I stopped. She then came up to me and said “I need to see you delete the photos all the way back to a photo that is not in this theatre”. As I had a dinner reservation only ten minutes later, I could not be bothered to get into a protracted argument and did what she demanded. I did, however, ask why I needed to delete the photos. She said “because they are the property of the Royal Shakespeare Company”.

On reflection though, this seems absurdly heavy-handed.

The need to protect intellectual property is clear, particularly in the arts. Cracking down on film piracy is important to maintain the economic viability of movie production. The music industry’s battles with illegal downloads and resulting DRM are well-documented.

Theatre, too, must protect itself against intellectual property theft. In an industry where many plays lose money and where West End ticket prices are so high, there will be concern from producers that failure to assert and defend the rights of the copyright holder may result in bootleg video versions of theatrical productions, thus stealing money from producers and, in turn, venue owners, actors, script writers, and backstage employees. On that basis, it is entirely right and proper that anyone attempting to video a play or musical should be challenged.

Intellectual property aside, it is also discourteous to the actors to take a photo during a production. The concentration required to give a great performance may be disturbed if someone is obviously filming or photographing; even more so if they use a flash. It is also likely to be distracting for other audience members if you hold up a camera during a performance.

For all these reasons, it is clear that taking photos or video footage during a play is bad-mannered and in breach of copyright.

But during the curtain call? I can see no sound reason why there should be any real objection to this. What possible theft of “the RSC’s property”, as the usher put it so pompously, was really taking place here? It’s hardly revealing anything confidential about the play if I have a photo showing actors, whose identities are displayed outside the theatre, in costumes, in which they are pictured in photos displayed outside the theatre, taking a bow at the end of the play. Spoiler alert: the actors, dressed in Tudor costumes, bow at the very end, much as actors do in every other theatrical production in London.

Other venues are far less heavy-handed in their application of the rule. Following the matinee performance of Wolf Hall, I saw Anna Nicole the Opera at the Royal Opera House in the evening. At this performance, dozens of people were taking photos of, and selfies in, the auditorium before the performance and of the curtain calls at the end. No-one took photos during the opera. The audience understood the convention.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the show with surely the best use of social media in the West End, has understood the value of ‘third-party validation’ or word-of-mouth: they understand that the best advert for their show is if a friend of yours posts a photo of themselves with Robert Lindsay at the stage door with a positive comment about the musical on Instagram or similar. They actively encourage Facebook users to submit photos of themselves with cast members at the stage door. What difference is there between a photo of an actor at the stage door and an actor taking a bow inside the theatre? Only really the costume. But these are not secret at all: photos of the cast in costume are in the public domain already, placed there by the producers, on publicity materials.

I have seen people taking photos during curtain calls at countless productions. What IP-theft is there really?

Music concerts are full of gig-goers filming the band. The quality of the recording is not going to be good enough to sell for commercial gain, so why should the band or venue owner care even if it is technically copyrighted? At football stadia, fans will take photos of the stadium or the players. Again, it’s probably technically not permitted, but it’s hardly going to make Sky panic and threaten to stop the TV rights money being paid.

So what practical infringement of intellectual property would have taken place if the usher had allowed me to take and keep a handful of photos of the cast of Wolf Hall bowing at the end of the production? I had enjoyed the production and it would have been nice to have a souvenir of the evening on my phone. Big deal. Even if I had used such a photo on this website in the event that I had wanted to write a blogpiece in some way linked to the production, or the RSC’s economics, or something, the RSC would not have lost out in any way. Nor would the Aldwych Theatre. I would not have gained from it. It would have been an entirely ‘victimless crime’. To police the ‘no photographs’ rule so stringently as to not permit photos during curtain calls seems absurd and in an industry with horrendous economics, theatres should, if anything, want to encourage people to take photos during curtain calls and share them on social media with wild abandon.

And to the usher at the Aldwych: you may only have been doing your job, but it’s a ridiculously heavy-handed way of doing it. I had enjoyed the play and wanted to take a photo after the play had ended. In the end, you shouted at me and made me delete the photo. Now I feel irritated and resentful. That may seem petty of me, but, to coin a phrase, this website is “my property” and I shall assert my right to think you were over the top in your reaction.

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