Special Reports

Commissioning a New Work: Navigating the Rights

June 3, 2014 | By Katie Baron and Norman Ryan

The world premiere is the light at the end of a very long and winding tunnel

A world-premiere performance can be exciting—often it forms the centerpiece of a glamorous fundraiser or has been commissioned by the presenter for a world-famous soloist (think any major American orchestra for Yo-yo Ma.) 

But long before the conductor strides onstage and mounts the podium, a complex series of rights (there’s that “bundle” again) needs to be addressed. The following illustrates the series of transactions that can take place when an opera company commissions a new work from a composer and librettist.

Commissioning a completely new work
A composer and librettist of a new opera may enter into a commission agreement with a presenter who wants to engage them to create an opera in exchange for certain rights. 

  • The commission agreement will spell out the ways in which the presenter may use the opera, which typically includes the right to present the world premiere performance of the opera as well as a number of additional performances.
  • The agreement may also provide the presenter with rights to make certain limited audiovisual recordings of its performances of the opera.
  • The agreement may also include the right to add one or more cocommissioners (such as another opera company). In exchange for bearing some of the financial burden of the commission fees and production costs, co-commissioners are typically entitled to present a certain number of performances at a reduced royalty.

When a composer and a librettist decide to write an opera together, either before they are commissioned by an opera company or afterwards, it is a good idea for the two of them to enter into a collaboration agreement concerning how they will handle the exploitation of the opera and the income generated from it. They may also decide to assign their rights in the opera to a music publisher for purposes of licensing future performances and other uses of the opera. If the composer and librettist have entered into a collaboration agreement at the outset, the procedure for choosing a publisher may be pre-determined in their agreement.

Commissioning a work based on an existing work
If the work being commissioned is to be based on an existing work, such as a novel, film, or both, this will likely require one or more agreements with the owners of the underlying rights, something best done well in advance. The underlying rights holders may not only be the author of the original work, but also any party to which the author has granted exclusive rights. For example, if the author of a novel granted motion-picture rights to a film company, the grant may also include the exclusive right to further adaptations of the work. In that case, the third-party rights holder (which in this instance is the film company) can grant the necessary rights to either:

  • The publisher of the opera, which can in turn grant the rights to present the world-premiere performance run to the commissioning opera company (either as part of the commission agreement or in a side letter)
  • The commissioning opera company, which can in turn grant the right to the publisher for future exploitation, or ß The composer and/or librettist, who can then grant the applicable rights to present the world premiere to the commissioning opera company and the rights to future exploitation thereafter to the music publisher.

Katie Baron is an attorney at the firm of Alter & Kendrick, LLP. Katie’s practice is focused in the area of copyright law with an emphasis on the music industry. She handles transactional and licensing matters for a number of prominent musical estates, songwriters, music publishers, and performing artists. Katie has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin and law degree from Fordham University.

Norman Ryan is vice president at Schott Music Corporation & European American Music in New York. He was previously with the New York City Opera, The Public Theater, Lincoln Center, and G. Schirmer, Inc. He has worked with many of the world’s leading composers and collaborated on projects with the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Royal Opera House, and American Opera Projects, among many others.




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