Cinderella and The Basics of Derivative Works
I recently went to the opening night performance of Center Theatre Group’s production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic musical “Cinderella.” I had seen this musical before, so I went in expecting to see the standard Rogers and Hammerstein dialogue, musical numbers, and plot-line. Boy, was I wrong to expect the usual!!
Douglas Carter Beane, the author of this new Cinderella story, took the original Cinderella musical by Rogers and Hammerstein and turned it into a brilliant combination of the old and the new. While Beane stayed true to Rogers and Hammerstein by keeping all of the original musical numbers, he created new dialogue that was in the common vernacular and implemented slight changes to certain characters. For example, one of the “evil” step sisters was portrayed as a sweet girl with a boyfriend.
The biggest change came in the form of a huge plot twist. At the end of Act One, Cinderella did NOT leave a glass shoe behind at midnight. Without a glass shoe to help the Prince find the girl of his dreams, the second half of the musical turned this classic fairy tale into a completely new story!! In order to accommodate for this big plot change, several songs from other Rogers and Hammerstein musicals were cut and pasted into this one.
The Laws Behind The Musical
When you, as Beane did, take an original work of art and change it in a manner that enough of your creativity is manifested in its final form, you have most likely created a derivative work. Creating a lawful derivative work can be quite tricky. The following are the legal basics behind the lawful creation of a derivative work.
According to the Copyright Act of 1976, a “derivative work” is a work that is based on preexisting material that has enough new originality (original expression) added to it to be considered a new work of art.  Since the Copyright Act gives the owner of a copyrighted work the exclusive right to create derivative works based on it , creating a lawful derivative work requires the permission of the original work’s creator to do so, . Courts have developed various tests when it comes to what constitutes “original expression.” One court decided that there needs to be more than just distinguishable, non-trivial variation.  Another court required a slightly higher standard of substantial, non-trivial variation.  A third court decided to require sufficient non-trivial expressions that are readily distinguishable variations.  Unfortunately, these standards all sound similar and are difficult to figure out.
Finally, expressions (copyrightable) are distinct from ideas (not copyrightable).  To use a simple example to illustrate, the general plot of “boy meets girl” is not copyrightable, but specific characters and specific settings in unique combinations are generally copyrightable.
A Wonderful New Take On A Classic
The gorgeous sets and magical onstage costume changes combined with a superb cast and a brilliant chamber ensemble in the orchestra pit made for a fantastic evening. This is no ordinary telling of the classic fairy tale. I highly recommend seeing this wonderful version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” while it’s still playing!!
Sources: 17 USC § 101  17 USC § 106  Anderson v. Stallone, 1989 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11109 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 25, 1989)  Gracen v. Bradford Exch., 698 F.2d 300 (7th Cir. 1983)  L. Batlin & Son, Inc. v. Snyder, 536 F.2d 486 (2d Cir. 1976)  Schrock v. Learning Curve Int’l, Inc., 586 F.3d 513 (7th Cir. 2009)  17 USC § 102
Cover Photo by Laura Billings under Creative Commons License.