How To Tell if a Play is in the Public Domain

I often hear from teachers looking for plays that they can perform for free. We can’t compete with free, and we don’t want to. This – Theatrefolk – is how we make our living. Not only that, it’s really nice to send cheques to playwrights. They need food and shelter just as much as everyone else.

Still, I understand that sometimes budgets for school plays are nonexistent. And the best place to turn in this case is to look for plays in the public domain.

Public domain basically means that work is not covered by copyright and you’re free to use it any way you see fit.

The obvious choice, of course, is Shakespeare. Sometimes Shakespeare seems like he’s your only choice. But if you’re willing to put in some time in exchange for that “free” play then you’ll also find a wealth of other material out there.

So, how do you know if the play you want to do is in the public domain? Copyright laws have changed many times and it can get pretty complex sorting them all out. Fortunately there are some excellent flowcharts available to guide you.

Copyright law applies in the country in which the work is being used, not in the country in which the work originated. Make sure you’re using the proper flowchart for your country:

The other important thing to remember is that just because a work is posted on the Internet doesn’t mean that it’s free of copyright. The handouts on our free resources page, for instance, are freely given to you by us but are still subject to copyright.

NOTE: I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice. I strongly recommend consulting a lawyer unless you’re 100% positive that a work is in the public domain.


About the author

Craig Mason