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How Do You Measure a Summer at the Copyright Office?

The following is a guest post by Ryan Kwock, summer law clerk in the Office of Policy and International Affairs

This summer, I had the pleasure of serving as a law clerk in the Office of Policy and International Affairs at the U.S. Copyright Office. In addition to working on challenging domestic and international copyright law matters, I took advantage of the opportunity to explore the numerous divisions and reading rooms in the Library of Congress, some of which were just a few floors away from my office.

Jonathan Larson

Jonathan Larson

I’ve always appreciated music and the American theater. The Music Division of the Library of Congress houses some of the largest and richest collections of American musical theater. In 2004, the Library acquired the Jonathan Larson Collection, an array of over 4,000 documents and materials from the American composer, lyricist, playwright, and performer. I enjoyed exploring the collection of Larson’s papers relating to his successful rock opera, Rent.

Rent is likely one of Larson’s best-known works, receiving critical acclaim for its depiction of young artists struggling against poverty, drugs, relationships, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City’s East Village. Such acclaim led to its winning several awards, including the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four 1996 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. After a twelve-year run on Broadway, the musical closed in 2008, but has received subsequent Off-Broadway revivals and national tours. Although Larson tragically and suddenly died the night before the show’s first Off-Broadway preview, the legacy of his messages has endured for generations of theatergoers.

Seasons of Love calculation

The Library’s collection—including Larson’s manuscripts, draft scores and scripts, research materials, correspondence, design sketches, and production materials—provide a firsthand glimpse into the creator’s mind. For example, pages of Larson’s lyric sketches reveal his notes and mathematical calculations to determine the 525,600 minutes in a year chorus that forms the musical’s centerfold anthem, “Seasons of Love.” As someone who grew up tirelessly listening to this Broadway recording, I have to say that seeing this collection was a poignant and inspiring experience.

Rent has experienced its own instances of controversy, including in the copyright arena. Lynn Thomson served as a dramaturge, assisting Larson in “clarifying the storyline of the musical.” After the show opened on Broadway, Thomson filed suit against Larson’s heirs, claiming that she was a coauthor of the musical because of the contributions she provided to the final version of the show. In Thomson v. Larson (1998), however, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that Thomson could not be a coauthor because evidence showed that Larson did not intend for her to be a coauthor. This left open a question whether a dramaturge could retain copyright interest in their contributions to a work.

Nevertheless, the Jonathan Larson collection is an invaluable window into the creation of one of the most influential musical productions in American theater history. To see it, visit the Performing Arts Reading Room in the James Madison Memorial Building of the Library of Congress. I enjoyed a wonderful summer experience, witnessing spectacular collections of creativity housed in the Library and working for the federal agency that administers the Copyright Act.