A play qualifies for copyright protection, typically as a literary work and performing art. However, several broad copyright categories apply to plays, such as literary work, dramatic work, choreographed work, musical compositions, sound recordings, motion pictures, pictorial, graphic and sculptural work and even architectural work. The playwright automatically secures basic copyright in the script once it's fixed in a tangible form. These include paper manuscripts, electronic document files, recorded live performances and published short or full length plays. A playwright should also apply for federal copyright registration as soon as possible. This optional registration provides many benefits, including exclusive ownership and publication rights of a play.

Copyright protection does not apply to the title of the play. However, copyrights potentially cover all the other original creative work associated with the written play and play production. The playwright secures copyrights in the scripted dialogue, character descriptions, scene directions, monologues and musical scores. The playwright and other creative contributors also hold copyrights in the costume designs, set designs, stage designs, publicity posters, art work, sound recordings and motion pictures based on the play. The percentage of ownership depends on the creative contributions of each author. All creative authors and their contributions must be included in the federal registration application.

The author of the original creative work applies for federal copyright registration through the United States Copyright Office. The office accepts applications submitted online through the electronic Copyright Office, known as eCO, or by mail. The Copyright Office generally processes online applications within two and a half months, whereas paper applications take over six months to process. Paper applications require form TX for literary work, form PA for performing arts, form VA for visual arts and form SR for sound recordings. Online legal service providers familiar with the different types of applications and deposit requirements can provide step-by-step guidance throughout the process. The completed federal copyright registration will provide a legal presumption of ownership, public notice of the registration and rights to sue in federal court over infringement claims.

Type of Original Creative Work

The copyright registration application requires the name of all creative authors, their specific contributions to the creative work, date of creation, date of publication (if applicable), contact information and type of work to be registered. The four general types of work include literary works, performing arts, visual arts and sound recordings. If a play qualifies for copyright protection as a literary work, performing art and sound recording, consider the physical form of the play. Register the printed script or published full-length play as a literary work, video recording of the play as performing arts work and a digital sound track of the play as a sound recording.

Mandatory Deposit Required

The federal registration process requires a completed application, registration fees and a copy of the work. At least one copy of the work must be deposited with the Library of Congress, through the Copyright Office. Published literary works generally require two copies to be deposited. Visual arts work, such as three-dimensional costume, set and scene designs, require two-dimensional photographs, sketches or drawings to be submitted. Electronic copies of the script or designs can be uploaded during the electronic application process. However, the applicant must then print out a shipping slip and mail in a hard-copy of the work within three months. Copyright owners who file for federal copyright registration within three months of publication qualify for exclusive publication rights.