Q-and-A: Theater law, with Gordon Firemark

April 10th, 2012 by Kim Jackson

The community of lawyers in the U.S. who specialize in Theater Law is small.  Gordon Firemark is one of those few. His practice focuses on representation of artists, writers, producers and directors in theater, film, television and music. He also deals with intellectual property, cyberspace, new media and business-corporate matters for entertainment industry clients. The publisher of Entertainment Law Update, a podcast for artists and professionals in entertainment, Firemark also teaches Theater Law in the Online LLM program at Southwestern and runs a commercial online site that aims to teach aspiring producers the ropes of the business. He is a graduate of Southwestern and recently at the request of the Biederman Blog answered questions about his background and legal specialty.

What is Theater Law?

It’s a subset of the field of Entertainment Law, which is really sort of an amalgam of components of other areas of law: the intellectual property area, contracts, labor, taxation, securities and finance. And what makes it unique is that it’s a niche market and industry that’s very insular and closed, and, therefore, has developed its own customs and practices over the years.  So being this field as a lawyer means being familiar with and understanding those customs and practices and their historical context, as well as their ramifications and the larger view in light of the modern entertainment climate.

I think of myself as a jack of a few specific trades.  Because my practice is both theater and film and TV, I need to be able to see the borders and where they diverge from one another in terms of how things are done.  One of the most important  factors … is the way copyright law operates in the theater space.  Because the “work made for hire” provision in the [copyright] law doesn’t provide for dramatic works to be considered “works made for hire” under contract, we have to deal with ownership issues different than we would have to for screenwriters, for example.

How did you get in to this field?

I got involved in theater as a diversion.  My junior high school principal guided me from hanging with kids getting into trouble to working on the school productions as the sound technician. I worked as a sound technician and majored in theater and moved in to radio, TV and film in college.  Becoming a lawyer was sort of an afterthought that came up when there was an entertainment industry strike.  So I went to law school and began practicing in the entertainment field, generally, and always kept coming back to the passion that I have for the theater that started at a very early age.  Because … I had worked in the entertainment industry prior to law school, my focus was always to work in entertainment.

What are the biggest legal issues that you face today?

The big legal issue in the field is questions around directors and whether they have copyright in the works that they do, as evidenced by the Julie Taymor case, which is currently in the courts. But also the nature of these contractual relationships among people.  The copyright stuff is fairly settled, the labor issues are fairly settled.  Directors’ copyright is a big legal issue.  Joint works and works created by the acting company as a group raise a lot of issues for us as well.

Who are your main clients?  Talent? Producers? Production companies?

I straddle the fence a little bit. I don’t generally represent talent unless they also are acting as a producer or unless they also have written the material, because, frankly, the actors’ deal is a pretty straight forward.  But I do straddle the fence in that sometimes I represent writers or directors and sometimes I’m representing producers.  Sometime I represent venues or their companies.

What courses do you recommend for students interested in Theater Law?

Obviously copyright law — all the intellectual law, but copyright and trademark, primarily.  Advanced work in contracts, generally, and I would say tax and securities are valuable.  Securities law is a part of how these things are financed, through exempt security offerings.  So understanding how that works is valuable.  Labor and employment relations are good to have some knowledge about, as well.

What’s most fun about working in this field?

Well, certainly I love going to theatrical premiers and sitting in the good seats.  But what’s really exciting to me is working with creative people and helping them to do something that not everyone can. And that is creating an art form that has a strong business component, too.  Working with creative people is a real exercise in understanding human psychology, as well as business.  Law schools would do well to teach a class in interpersonal relationships.

How did your podcast start?

The podcast is called Entertainment Law Update and it is something that I started about four years ago when I began listening to a lot of podcasts and thought “Oh, that’s a neat thing to do.”  And because I have a background as a sound technician, I knew how to do recordings — and I’m a tech geek and knew how to make it happen — so I just decided to give it a try and thought, “Why not talk about Entertainment Law and what the developments are?” And off it went. I found myself a co-host and launched it and we’ve been going at it for several years. We’ve only done 29 episodes because it’s a monthly thing.  [His March 29 episode, the most recent, addresses topics including: 360 Deals and the Talent Agency Act, Music Sales vs. License Litigation, Copyright Termination and more. It can be downloaded free from iTunes or you can hear it here.]

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This site is an academic activity of law students at the Biederman Entertainment and Media Law Institute. Founded in 2000, the Institute takes full educational advantage of Southwestern Law School's location in Los Angeles and its long history with and deep connections to the entertainment industry.