Drag Queens! Copyright Your Work!

Female impersonators of stars such as Cher, Diana Ross and Reba McIntire pose in gowns on a brightly lit section of the Las Vegas Strip.

Female impersonators from the “An Evening With La Cage,” the Las Vegas show that ran for 23 years, closing in 2009. Photo: Carol Highsmith.

This is a guest post by Holland Gormley, a public affairs specialist in the  U.S. Copyright Office. It was first published on the Copyright: Creativity at Work blog.

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ+) Pride Month, which is celebrated each year to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan. It’s an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the impact that this community has had on our nation’s culture and history.

One example is the art of drag performance, one of the many creative contributions to come out of the queer community. The history of drag within the copyright record runs deep, and many aspects of it are protected by copyright.

The origins of drag performances can be traced back to 1869 when Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge began hosting secret “drag balls,” which served as a safe place for the queer community to congregate without fear. These went on for decades.

In his 1940 autobiography, “The Big Sea,” Langston Hughes described Hamilton Lodge as “a queerly assorted throng on the dance floor” where men dressed as women and women dressed as men. Although the balls catered primarily to the queer community, straight artists and writers were also attracted to the celebratory atmosphere. Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, coauthors of 193e’s “The Young and Evil,” described the scene as “a […] celestial flavor and cerulean coloring no angelic painter or nectarish poet has ever conceived . . . lit up like high mass.”

Several decades later, documentaries registered for copyright protection, such as “The Queen” in 1968 and “Paris Is Burning” in 1990, explored the origins of vogueing, a precursor to modern drag. Contemporary TV series like “POSE” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” have helped bring further awareness to the art form and draw it into more mainstream culture. It is worth underscoring how prolifically creative today’s drag queens can be. For example, “Drag Race’ contestant Brian Firkus, better known as Trixie Mattel, has recorded three albums and coauthored a book with fellow queen Katya Zamolodchikova, also known as Brian Joseph McCook.

The art of drag itself also incorporates many forms of work protected by copyright. Performers of drag can register original comedy and stand-up sketches, songs, and, possibly, certain types of choreographic works for copyright protection using a performing arts application. Videos can be registered as motion pictures, and photographs are also covered by copyright. Drag performers should consider copyright laws that apply to music used while performing choreography or during lip-synching. Some public venues will have a license that covers this use, but check to be sure.

What’s not registerable for copyright when it comes to drag? Many performers choose stage names that include clever plays on words. Although we LOVE puns at the Copyright Office, names, titles, and short phrases are not protected by copyright. The Office cannot register individual words or brief combinations of words, even if the word or short phrase is novel, distinctive, or lends itself to a play on words.

Regardless of the medium, the work inspired by and created as part of drag performance is an important part of LGBTQ+ culture. Representation of the queer community in the copyright record matters. Protecting original work through copyright helps it become a part of our diverse national record. During 2021 Pride Month, the Copyright Office celebrates the creative works of LGBTQ+ creators and performers past, present, and future. Our nation is stronger and more vibrant for it!

You can learn how to register your work for copyright protection anytime.

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