How to get permission to use established characters for a play

Question: I have written three plays for a group that does dinner theatre for fundraising, strictly amateur and small scale. I do it as a creative outlet for fun, no intentions of attempting to publish. They have been very well received but I am not getting too excited, they were after all done for free. I am a freelance illustrator by trade and am very conscious of copyright infringement. I also work with seniors and a couple have expressed a wish to participate in our productions which led to an idea for a new play using beloved characters from a TV show enjoyed in their youth, "Little Rascals" Would it be possible to get permission to use these characters?

Answer: Oh, that's a thorny issue, and I confess I am not an expert on copyright law.

That said, it seems to me there was a film not too many years ago based on The Little Rascals, which suggests to me that someone with money still owns copyright over the characters and will probably be protective of them.

If you were writing fan fiction and not charging money for it, you probably wouldn't need to worry. But if you are charging admission and advertising those characters, even if it's for charity, it could be a problem. Can you imagine UNICEF wanting to mount a Broadway show starring Mickey Mouse and Disney just ignoring it?

Okay, sometimes (actually fairly often) small amateur groups get away without paying royalties or getting permission. It's not legal, but you might not be big enough (in terms of box office receipts) for the copyright owners to find out about or care enough about to take you to court. Also, if you are raising money for charity, a copyright owner may be less inclined to go after you. But it's a risky business and not really fair to the creator of the work being copied.

If you want to get permission, you would need to find out who currently owns the copyright and ask them. Hopefully, they won't charge you a big fee.

Here's an article by the US Copyright Office that might get you started...

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