Whose (community) opera is it anyway?

Intellectual property rights have rarely been an issue during my life in community art. The projects I’ve worked consciously rejected market values and therefore rarely produced anything that could be commercialised. Still, the world has changed a lot in that time, and the creative industries – a concept only defined in the 1990s – are profitable and self-interested. Work made collectively and for non-commercial reasons often finds itself in a grey area, unprotected from being reproduced in ways that its creators neither expected nor approve.

Creators have long struggled to protect their ownership and moral rights. Although they have been largely successful in law, information technology has tipped the scales against them once again. Unable to prevent illegal copying of their recordings, musicians now largely depend on live performance for their income (which is why the pandemic has hit them so hard). Writers, who are often asked to read unpaid, have no such safety net. Copyright protects ownership (such as the right to perform, broadcast or reproduce a work) and moral rights, which prevent the work being exploited in ways that ‘would be prejudicial to the author’s honor or reputation‘. It is these which are probably most relevant in community art, since they give creators some control over how their art is used by others. But further ambiguities arise from the co-creation of professional and non-professional artists – to whom does the work then belong?

This question has to be resolved by the Traction projects because, despite their differences, each involves professional composers and librettists working with people who have not made opera before and who are vulnerable or at risk of social exclusion. That, after all, is the rationale of the project. There are established ways of protecting the property and moral rights of composers and librettists, but what can be done to protect the rights of the people they work with? It is possible, for example, to imagine that a librettist has been told a story from a person’s lived experience in an interview or a workshop that they then adapt for the opera. Does the person who told them that story have the right to demand its removal if they are unhappy with how it has been used, or if their life circumstances change and they no longer want it known? That is a moral dilemma that can arise in community art work, but it is not covered by copyright law. 

Each of the community opera projects in Traction will have to decide how to settle these questions: honestly, I do not know what is the best solution. So if you have been involved in a co-creation project that has found ways to protect the rights and interests of professionals and non-professionals, I’d be very glad to know about it. Please let us know about your experience in the comments below, or you can contact me directly here.  Thanks for any suggestions!   

The photograph at the top of the page was taken during my visit last week to SAMP, the Portuguese community opera partner in Traction, and it represents some of the grey areas in copyright. I was sent it afterwards, and while I’m sure no one will mind it being used here, I don’t know who took it: such licence is commonplace in the days of social media, but it is also uncomfortable.