January 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

A New Script: Can works of fiction be adapted for Readers’ Theater?

Can works of fiction be adapted for Readers’ Theater?

As part of a program for young people, we’d like to adapt a children’s book for Readers’ Theater. The resulting script will be presented in a school or public library. I’ve come across a lot of helpful tips on how to transform a book into script, but I haven’t found anything on copyright issues. Is it OK to adapt a work of fiction?

—Bethany Lafferty, assistant branch manager, youth services department head
Green Valley Library, Henderson, NV

This is an interesting question. Since a Readers’ Theater script is by definition adapted from an original work, it’s obviously derivative. Plus, you’re planning to perform it in front of an audience. Of course, the copyright law doesn’t provide a specific answer to your question; so it’s time to turn to fair use, section 107 of the copyright law.

Let’s start by looking at the purpose of the use—the first of fair use’s four considerations. Although your use is not-for-profit, it’s not strictly for educational purposes, which leaves it in the middle of the “nonprofit educational vs. for-profit, commercial use” continuum. Factor two—the nature of the work—goes against you, because children’s fiction is very creative and, consequently, highly protected by the copyright law. The amount of the work used—factor three—may also work against you, since you’ll need to adapt a significant portion of the original work (otherwise people won’t recognize the work you’re performing!). But factor four—the effect of your use on the work’s marketplace—is squarely on your side, since your use won’t have a negative impact on the book’s sales. All in all, your intended use straddles the line between fair and unfair.

Fortunately, fair use isn’t simply a matter of tallying up the number of pro and con votes to determine the winner. Instead, we need to carefully examine the whole situation—the total context of the use—before making a final judgment. For example, if we look at copyright as a set of economic rights (which it is under United States law), do the socially beneficial aspects of your use override the rights holder’s economic monopoly? I’d say, yes. What about a copyright holder’s moral rights (which is something that European copyright law often looks at)? Should the book’s creators have some control over how their work is depicted by others? Again, I’d argue yes. If that’s the case, then it’s necessary to seek the rights holder’s permission to adapt the work.

Ultimately, you need to make your own decision. This particular case is a close call, but since your use won’t harm the rights holders financially, I’d say proceed as planned. But if you intend to perform the script again, I’d recommend asking for permission for any repeat performances.

One of our math teachers has created an extensive set of worksheets to accompany Houghton Mifflin’s Every Day Counts: Algebra Readiness, which we use with our sixth and seventh graders. During the past year, some of our other middle school teachers have also used these materials, which include monthly packets of graphs, patterns, and counting tapes. Our students are required to complete these materials, but they’re not graded on them. By the way, although the materials are designed to accompany the text, they don’t reference it in any way. Has the teacher violated the copyright law?

—Mary Martin Stump, librarian
Kenmore Middle School, Arlington, VA

This is a tough one. It’s difficult because we don’t know exactly how the teacher’s materials are able to accompany the textbook without referencing it in any way. My guess is that the worksheets are supplementary exercises that follow the organization of the textbook and they’re distributed accordingly throughout the school year. If the teacher’s worksheets and packets are made up of only public domain materials—figures, equations, and math solutions—then this is not a copyright issue. Why not? Because the teacher—and, for that matter, all of us—can legally use anything that’s in the public domain. As long as the teacher hasn’t borrowed or appropriated any of the textbook’s original content, this is not a case of copyright infringement.


Carrie Russell is the American Library Association’s copyright specialist. She will answer selected questions from readers. Send questions to slj@reedbusiness.com, with “copyright” in the subject line. Be sure to include your title and the name of your school or public library. Note: Carrie’s comments are not to be considered legal advice.

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