A Separate Legal Issue About That Church Putting on A Charlie Brown Christmas

There’s been a big controversy lately because an atheist parent is upset over the fact that Terry Elementary School in Little Rock, Arkansas wants to take students on a field trip to see A Charlie Brown Christmas at a local church. You can read more about the story here.

But Huffington Post commenter barbara960 noticed a completely separate issue when looking at the Peanuts website: The church shouldn’t be performing the play in the first place.

So how did Agape Church get the legal rights to perform this play? Or did they think that, because they were Christians, they would be able to get away with it?

I’ve asked the church to answer that question. I’ll let you know if I hear back.

(Thanks to Brian for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • CultOfReason

    Unfortunately, this is not such a clear cut legal issue.  It really depends on several issues such as who is performing the play, where it’s being performed, is admission being charged, etc…

    As I understand it, the fair use exception to copyright laws keeps a lot of lawyers busy.

    UPDATE: I found this website that goes into more detail regarding fair use with regards to putting on a performance:

    http://www.littlebuffalolaw.com/blog/articles/2012/01/classroom-drama-turning-books-into-plays/

    • OregoniAN

      The example you link to specifically refers to the use of copyrighted materials in classroom scenarios for educational purposes in schools. The law becomes a bit less gray when the materials are used by other entities.

      I recall when I was a drama student in high school (back in the early ’80′s) our instructor paid royalties for many of our productions. He made it very clear that if you wanted good plays that the playwrights needed to eat.

      But I guess if you’re running a church you can assume it’s all God’s wonderful work  – and that you are entitled to it

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    Do we know how long ago the play became unavailable? It is entirely possible that the church got rights earlier this year, and then later it became unavailable.

    I’d hold off  any speculation on misdeeds of the church until there is more information.

    • Darwin’s Dagger

      The Charlie Brown Christmas was never a play. It’s an animated TV show that people have illegally adapted for the stage. The question is whether or not the attention given to this production by the Friendly Atheist is enough to make the Schulz estate take legal action.

      • Jon Peterson

        I’d venture a guess “no”, and I can’t say I would blame them. Considering that a large portion of their target market firmly believes that Peanuts is a Christian comic… they may not want to invite the PR mess that would come of telling a church to stop stealing IP. (Predicted Fox headline: “Peanuts joins war on Christianity”)

        • Cheryl

          I’d venture to say that Peanuts will issue a cease and desist letter. 

          I’m not sure about what an entity has to do to protect copyright, but owners of trademarks have to be vigilant lest they lose rights to their mark. 

          I had the lawyers of a well known brand of fabric hook-and-loop fasteners contact me when in a very small article I wrote for a very small business journal I improperly used the product name to describe someone’s else’s stuff. It was a friendly letter advising me on proper use of the term and how (or not) to use it. 

          Why would they care? Well, they had a mark to protect. 

          And if you don’t think the Peanuts image is a huge brand to protect, think again. Once the lawyers find out about the misuse, they then have a duty to put a stop to it. If they allow this production to go on, it becomes harder to shut down the next illegal production.

          And it doesn’t hurt to ask for permission. I work for a nonprofit that wanted to use a quote from motivational guru Stephen Covey on a brochure for its hospice. I told them that they need to get permission first. After much grumbling and fussing (and saying “everyone did it” so it must be OK), they contacted his company which happily sent a letter granting permission. No charge.

          This church could do the same — ask for permission instead of stealing someone’s intellectual property. It is rather unseemly if you ask me.

          • Jon Peterson

            I could see them sending a cease and desist. I could also see the church ignoring it out of hand, and nothing coming of it because of potential PR damage following legal action. Because there’s no damage to marketability to Peanuts for letting the play go on (or at least, it could be argued as such), if there was ever a question in the future about why Peanuts didn’t pursue legal action, they could simply say they considered it covered under fair use and discard it as irrelevant.

            • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

              Trademark does not have fair use exceptions.

        • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

          If Charles Schultz were still alive, he could have delivered an epic smackdown:

          “I despise those shallow religious comics,” he said. “Dennis the Menace, for instance, is the most shallow. When they show him praying–I just can’t stand that sort of thing, talking to God about some cutesy thing that he’d done during the day. I don’t think Hank Ketcham [Dennis' creator] has any deep knowledge of things like that.”

          http://whyevolutionistrue.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/lol-51.jpg

          • Jon Peterson

            Oh, certainly. I just don’t expect the estate to act in a way that could potentially damage their revenue stream. /shrug

        • Thomas Farrell

           If they’re officially made aware of it, they’ll probably take action so as to not make their rights become legally questionable.

  • muzakwood

    As someone who works in local theater, I have to tell you that a lot of groups, particularly non-profit community groups of all kinds, play a little loose with all kinds of rights issues. Otherwise a lot of groups couldn’t perform. Ever. I’d hate for anyone to bring the hammer down on them for what is probably a recreation that is not competing with the professional work.

    You can also negotiate special rights through either the owner of the rights or through a clearinghouse agency. And I have to say what I’ve seen okay’ed and what was nixed is often very subjective depending on things as little as the mood of the agent you are dealing with or how badly they feel about your tiny budget.

    Rights are also geographic. I lost the rights to do Chicago because they decided to do a revival in NYC and I was within the 100 mile radius. And there have been shows I haven’t been able to purchase because they were only available in some mid-western markets.

    • Jon Peterson

      It’s no legal grey. The script, whether produced by the Peanuts copyright holders or not, heavily utilizes copyrighted IP (literally all of the characters, the title, the plot…). That’s pure copyright infringement, and without a license to use that IP, nobody is permitted to use that script.

      And no, they’re not covered under the (U.S. Copyright Fair-Use Policy). The performance is not educational, uses creative material, and clones the entirety of the copyrighted work (with only minor changes made for adaption to the medium). Although it does not likely have any negative effect on the marketability of the original content, that’s not going to help the case any.

      The real question is whether Peanuts copyright holders would bother going after them over it. Considering that a large portion of their target market firmly believes that Peanuts is a Christian comic… they may not want to invite the PR mess that would come of telling a church to stop stealing IP. (Fox headline: “Peanuts joins war on Christianity”)

    • Christopher Buchholz

      I work at a non profit, and we spend quite a bit of effort and money on compliance. Just because you are “doing good” does not mean you are above the law.

      Certainly I disagree with aspects of copyright law. But it is the law. We would never jeopardize our donor’s money like this, it was given to us to do good, not to defend us against avoidable lawsuits.

    • Thomas Farrell

       “Otherwise a lot of groups couldn’t perform. Ever.”

      Funny, but some of my friends founded a community theater group in a church, and they have lawfully licensed everything from day one, and they’ve had no problem performing very regularly.

    • tubi

      I note with interest that the script from Wellspring actually says “by Charles M. Schultz” under the title “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.”

      Charles M. Schultz never wrote anything with that title to my knowledge. If this is the script they are using, that’s a mark against them when it comes to infringement.

  • Darwin

    The estate of Charles Schulz is a force to be reckoned with.

  • http://yeswesam.wordpress.com/ Sam

    Was this show EVER licensed as a play? The implication I get from the FAQ answer is that there IS no Charlie Brown Christmas play – only an animated special, which would make ANY performance of it illegal.

  • Cheryl

    A church stealing! Egads, say it isn’t so, Charlie Brown. 

    But, yes, that’s exactly what it looks like. We have a bunch of “respectable” folk — probably with a very talented choir director arranging the score —  from Agape Christian stealing the intellectual property of Charles Schultz’s estate. 

    What a noble example they set. I guess Thou Shall Not Steal doesn’t apply to them.

    And I’m sure the estate will crack down on the church in order to protect the original work. I wonder if the church will  “embellish”  – kind of like how Christian haunted houses turn into screeds about  spending eternity in hell if you don’t repent.

    I can only imagine the damage the church will do the story.

    • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

      Technically it’s “infringing”, not “stealing.”

      Either way,  the church is being naughty.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1078695333 David Kopp

      To be fair, copyright infringement isn’t stealing. Conflating the two is a little intellectually dishonest. They don’t have the rights to do what they’re doing, and it’s morally repugnant to try to use a relatively secular trend to push religion, but it isn’t theft ;)

      • Jon Peterson

        In all fairness, the noise that the RIAA’s been spewing across the media over the years has not done anything to make the distinction particularly clear. Many people think copyright infringement is theft.

        For practical purposes though, I hardly think it matters whether you call it theft (if this church were to charge entry, it would be a form of both theft AND fraud, but the proper term would remain “infringement”) because the word is largely irrelevant outside of a courtroom, and the intent is conveyed quite well regardless.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    I posted this on the other thread, too, but they’re not performing the television special. According to their website, it’s an “adaptation” called Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown. I was actually trying to find out more about it, since it seems likely to me that such an evangelical church would add more religious content to the original, making it even more unsuitable for public elementary school children.

    Churches like this often seem to hide the religious element of what they are doing, in order to try to draw new people into the fold. One evangelical church near me posted flyers inviting middle school students to attend “Disco Night” on Halloween, with no mention of any religious content. Similarly, I once attended a supposedly secular holiday show at a Baptist church that ended with an exhortation to accept Christianity. I’d be willing to bet a fair amount that this church’s Charlie Brown adaptation contains something similar. Can anyone find the script or a review?

  • Devon Morera

    Maybe they’re using the Dog Sees God technique where they just abbreviate or change the characters’ names to get around the legal issues? 

  • newavocation

    Why do they need to take the kids on a field trip to a church anyway? Can’t you just have the performance at a school district’s auditorium or in their cafeteria? It’s really not about the play, it’s about getting the kid’s exposed to your church and religion!

    • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

      Which is, of course, the whole reason the church is putting on the play in the first place!

      I wouldn’t have a problem with this event if it took place at the local community theater. But taking public school children to a highly evangelical church to see a production that’s intended to promote Christianity is  problematic, to say the least.

  • Angie

    My high school theatre group performed A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1997, give or take a year (it was also performed again 6 years later at the same school when my brother was in it)- I worked on the set and built Snoopy’s doghouse, which I still have today and haul out on my lawn once a year for an awesome Snoopy Xmas display.  We sold tickets, though it wasn’t for profit, as it all went to the theatre group to pay for the show.  It was one of the most fun productions we ever did, and despite there being some Christian content, it just never occurred to any of us or any of our parents or teachers that there might be something wrong with putting on the play for Christmas- heck the Bob Cratchett Xmas story which is done in plays around the holidays most often is a lot more christiany than Charlie Brown- and you’d be hard-pressed finding holiday-themed plays that don’t have some element of jesus talk.  It’s the equivalent of trying to put on a whole choir concert around the holidays that doesn’t have any religious music. You might be able to do it for a year or two, but you’d have to repeat the same crappy material every single year to stay within those confines, and that would just suck.  

    So yeah, I totally agree with it being a big deal to send school kids off to church to see any sort of play, but I think it’s unrealistic and petty to try to take xmas out of all holiday arts events.  I’m an atheist, my family is atheist or agnostic, and we loved going to see the Charlie Brown play on xmas when it was at my school.  And we definitely didn’t get any sort of cease and desist letter from Peanuts.  And we definitely weren’t trying to “get away with it” just because we were a high school.  So thinking this church has some nefarious intention with trying to get away with it because they’re christian just seems ludicrous to me.  I just worry that well-intentioned atheists bringing this up might ruin one of the more fun holiday theatre choices out there for a lot more kids than just the jesus crowd.  

    • Thomas Farrell

       “I think it’s unrealistic and petty to try to take xmas out of all holiday arts events.”

      Firstly, there shouldn’t be “holiday art events”. It’s a religious holiday, the school should not be having events around it.

      Secondly, you’re parroting the crap of the “war on christmas” loonies. The school is not “taking xmas out of the holiday” if it doesn’t take the kids to a christmas play, it’s obeying the f***ing Constitution of the United States of America. It is not denying kids religious self expression, it’s just not shoving it down their throats.

      You want to love going to see an amateur stage production of Charlie Brown Christmas? Great! I probably would too! But it should not be staged by or sponsored by or attended officially by a public school. Because that’s illegal.

    • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

      heck the Bob Cratchett Xmas story which is done in plays around the holidays most often is a lot more christiany than Charlie Brown- and you’d be hard-pressed finding holiday-themed plays that don’t have some element of jesus talk.

      I can’t think of anything like that in A Christmas Carol, and I’ve seen it performed on stage many times. Aside from Tiny Tim’s “God Bless Us, Everyone” at the end, there’s no mention of religion. There are ghosts and time travel, but certainly no orthodox religion that I can recall.

  • http://atheistlutheran.blogspot.com/ MargueriteF

    I found a “script” here, basically the same as the TV special but with some added commentary from the narrator:

    http://www.wellspringrevivalministries.org/docs/A_Charlie_Brown_Christmas.pdf

    I found it via this link, “Where to find free Christmas play scripts”:

    http://www.helium.com/items/2266857-christmas-play-scripts-available-for-free

    Of course, I have no way of knowing if this is the script being used for this particular performance, but I’d bet they found their script on the internet, too. While this appears to be a clear copyright infringement, I wouldn’t presume intentional wrongdoing on the part of the church. So many people wrongly assume that whatever they find marked “free” on the internet is okay to use. A lot of people are extremely uninformed about copyright, unfortunately. I’m more inclined to suspect the people at the church just didn’t know any better.

  • Nope

    Censoring the arts by protecting corporate intellectual property when infraction causes no financial harm…

    You’re better than that, Hemant.  I expect that sort of thing from indignant Christians, not you. 

    • allein

      How exactly is he censoring anyone? Is this blog post preventing them from putting on their show?

      • Nope

        The principle of questioning whether a play should be allowed or not is an act which is supportive of censorship. Calling it a “legal challenge to putting on a play” is certainly indicative of the intention to prevent the play from happening.  

        This is first grade comprehension stuff.

    • David Starner

      Censoring the arts? The arts should learn to write their own material, not copy (literal word-for-word copying in this case) others. There’s a lot of grey area to discuss, but getting money to perform the work of others publically is not all that grey.

      • Nope

        “Censoring the arts? The arts should learn to write their own material, not copy (literal word-for-word copying in this case) others.”

        Spoken like someone who thinks that each theatre group writes their own plays.  What if this destructive concept of intellectual property had been around during the Greek dramas?  Intellectual property laws, especially when enforced to silence people you don’t like, are barbaric. 

        • David Starner

           I seem to recall that each season the Greek playwrights competed with fresh plays. Each theater group that writes its own plays would rather that other theatrical groups didn’t just copy them. (I’m sure I can ask my brother-in-law who writes original material for the High Street Broadcast, makes sure that the other work he uses is PD or properly licensed, and would like to make a full career of music writing.) If a theatrical group would not like to write their own plays, there is a huge body of PD work out there, as well as a huge body of work that can be cheaply licensed.

          Intellectual property laws keep the people producing intellectual property fed. Your Greek dramatists were slave owners, meaning they didn’t need to worry about that.

  • Alexis

    Back in the sixties a group called The Covenant Players came to our church to put on their own plays featuring Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Sally, etc. dressed in Peanuts style costumes). A few months later they made a return visit. They had totally different names and subtly different because the owners of the trademarks were unhappy with them.

  • Mark W.

    Really?  Copyright laws?  Have we gotten so petty that if you don’t like the play, instead of calling them out on the religious overtones, we’ll go and nail them to the wall for something else.  Is someone going to follow them around and cite them for jaywalking also?  It’s BS tactics like this that make us look like a bunch of spoiled children.


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