By now you’ve probably heard the story about how leaders of The Door Christian Fellowship McAllen Church in McAllen, Texas thought that Hamilton, a much-admired and long-running Broadway musical that has won, among other awards, 11 Tonys, a Grammy, and a Pulitzer Prize, was probably pretty good. The Door Christian Fellowship apparently thought, though, that while Hamilton seemed to be a very good musical on its own, what it really needed in order to be truly chef’s kiss was a local amateur production enhanced with a healthy dollop of Christian evangelical proselytizing to improve its boring old focus on American political history. The church subsequently wrote, rehearsed, and performed its “improved” Hamilton without seeking or receiving permission or a license from Hamilton’s producers (the copyright holders).
Now, as anyone with the good taste and sound judgment to have read Copyright for Creatives already knows, there are several obvious problems with this scenario. Let’s walk through them, and then see how the story turned out in the end.
- Say No To This. First of all, The Door Christian Fellowship violated Copyright for Creatives’ statement of the fundamental principle of copyright law: Don’t Take Other Peoples’ Stuff. (I won’t mention that the church also violated the Eighth Commandment in Exodus 20:15—the one about not taking other peoples’ stuff—because that one’s not in my book) The church did not seek permission to perform Hamilton, or to adapt Hamilton, and performand and adaptation are two of the rights in the bundle of rights held solely by a copyright owner. Copyright exists for a reason, to protect the rights of creative people who create new and original stuff, and to prevent others from profiting or benefitting from the illegitmate use of other people’s creative work. Taking a Broadway musical–wildly successful or not–and manipulating its plot, music and lyrics in ways unintended by its creators is pretty much Infringement 101.
- That Would Be Enough. Here are just a few of the changes the church felt entitled to make to Hamilton:
- Original: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman…” Church: “How does a scoundrel, orphan, son of a harlot…”
- Original: “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Church: “What is a legacy? It’s knowing you repented and accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ that sets men free.”
- Original: “But I’m not afraid/I know who I married/So long as you come home at the end of the day/That would be enough” Church: “But I’m not afraid/My hope is in Jesus/If you could just give him a chance today/That would be enough.”
- Original: “I help to raise hundreds of children. I get to see them growing up.” Church: “I introduced hundreds of children to Jesus as they’re growing up”
- Original: The characters Eliza and Philip console each other before Eliza sings “It’s Quiet Uptown” Church: A random male character (not Eliza) spends a good chunk of stage time convincing Alexander that he’s responsible for Philip’s death and that the only way to atone is to accept Jesus Christ as his lord and savior, which Hamilton dutifully does.
- Original: The production ends with a gasp. Church: The show ends with a sermon about how being gay is just like alcoholism or drug addiction.
But it really doesn’t matter one bit how much the church changed the text and music of Hamilton. There’s no “10% Rule” that lets anyone use ten percent of anything. There’s also no “5% Rule” or “0.02% Rule.” Copyright violation is copyright violation.
- History Has Its Eyes On You. It doesn’t matter that the production was created and performed by a church. Educational use doesn’t apply, because educational use doesn’t include changing the character of thing you’re using, and also because “educational use” doesn’t mean that anyone who’s educating anybody about anything gets to just use whatever copyrighted material they want, because we all like education. Those limits are discussed in Copyright for Creatives, and I won’t go into all that here, because it’s pretty obvious that it’s not really relevant to the situation.
Fair use also doesn’t apply here. The only possible fair use argument the church might have made would be that they are parodying Hamilton, but since what they were doing was not parody but adaptation, was not commentary on Hamilton itself or the Broadway musical in general, that argument falls flat. And while the law does allow churches to use some copyrighted material in limited circumstances as part of worship services, there is no exception that lets churches reproduce full Broadway musicals or make massive content changes to whatever copryighted stuff they want to.
- Wait For It. So the church premiered its version of Hamilton live, and posted videos of the production online, forgetting that it’s 2022 and there’s this thing called social media, which promptly blew up with news, commentary, and clips of the production. All that social media noise alerted Hamilton’s producers, who immediately issued a statement that “Hamilton does not grant amateur or professional licenses for any stage productions and did not grant one to The Door Church.”
Hamilton author Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted: “Grateful to all of you who reached out about this illegal, unauthorized production. Now lawyers do their work.”
And the lawyers did their work, sending The Door a cease and desist letter, requiring that the production stop immediately, and also demanded that any posted videos of the production be taken down. The producers kindly permitted a final scheduled production to proceed, purely out of the goodness of their hearts, as long as it was not recorded or broadcast. They also stipulated that the discussion was not yet over.
- “Remember You Belong To Me.” The producers of Hamilton and the copyright-infringing Door Church reached an agreement that required the church to apologize for the infringement and pay Hamilton’s producers unspecified financial damages. The church made a public statement:
“The Door Christian Fellowship McAllen Church did not ask for, or receive, a license from the producers or creators of Hamilton to produce, stage, replicate or alter any part of Hamilton; nor did we seek prior permission to alter Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work by changing the music, the lyrics, deleting songs, and adding dialogue…We respect the copyright of Hamilton’s author and contributors….On behalf of The Door Christian Fellowship McAllen Church, we agree we will never stage the performance again and will destroy any and all video or sound recordings and images of the unauthorized performances or rehearsals, and request that all our members do the same. Lastly, we will pay damages for our actions.”
While the amount of money paid by the church is not known, we do know where it will go. Never at a loss for irony, the producers of Hamilton announced that they will donate all damages received from The Door Church to the South Texas Equality Project (STEP), a local advocacy and support organization for LGBT people.
The bottom line, at the risk of repeating myself, is that when it comes to copyrighted material, Don’t Take Other Peoples’ Stuff. It doesn’t matter if your motives are pure, or you’re just trying to save souls, don’t covet thy neighbor’s copyrighted music and lyrics.
 The title and all headings in this post are song titles or lyrics from Hamilton.
 Thanks to @hemantmehta and @OnstageBlogon Twitter for video of The Door performances and lyric comparisons
 @Lin_Manuel, August 9, 2022