Moral Rights in Copyright: Lin-Manuel Miranda sues Texas Church for unauthorized performances of “Hamilton”

Moral Rights in Copyright: Lin-Manuel Miranda sues Texas Church for unauthorized performances of “Hamilton”

Michelle Mao is a 2L student at Osgoode Hall Law School and an IPilogue Writer.

In response to a Texan Church’s unauthorized performance of Hamilton, where the musical’s contents were altered to reflect Christian Values, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Hamilton musical tweets, “Now lawyers do their work.” So, what exactly does this “work” entail?

On August 5 and 6, The Door, a church in McAllen, Texas live-streamed their production of Hamilton with modified lyrics to reference Jesus and added a scene where Alexander Hamilton repents. The production ends with a sermon helping those who were struggling with drugs, addiction, and most controversially, homosexuality. The copyright issues that exist in this situation include: unauthorized streaming, unauthorized use of Hamilton content, unauthorized alterations to Hamilton content, and an infringement of an artist’s “moral right” to their copyrighted work. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lawyers can consider several measures to protect his intellectual property. First, Hamilton the Musical did not grant performers rights to use its unique content and had only granted licensing to touring companies to perform the musical in various cities around the world. Given that The Door McAllen Church is not a touring company, they had not been previously granted rights to perform and live-stream, much less alter the contents of Hamilton the Musical. 

There is, however, an added layer of complexity for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lawyers in this case. As religious institutions, churches are granted special exemptions from typical copyright protections called the Religious Services Exemption. Therefore, performance or display of a copyrighted work at a religious institution is allowed, such as the performance of a hymn. This exemption, however, still does not grant churches the freedom to alter copyrighted work, such as changing the lyrics of a copyrighted song. 

An interesting argument Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lawyers can make is to claim Lin-Manuel's moral rights claim to his copyrighted work. A moral right to copyrighted work is protection for authors to prevent the alteration and/or distortion of their work regardless of who the copyright owner is. The purpose of this right is to protect the reputations of authors and to prevent the destruction of unique works. The moral rights argument can be very strong in this case, given the progressive message that Hamilton the Musical stands for, with its casting of people-of-colour to portray an era dominated by colonization and white settlers. It is not hard to see how altering Hamilton the Musical, which has been hailed as an iconic piece subverting oppression, to promote certain Christian values and condemn homosexuality would severely damage Lin-Manuel Miranda’s reputation. 

This problem of copyright, fair use, and moral rights, in this case, is an interesting one, where the non-profit and fair use angles of church and religion and moral rights are evaluated within overlapping legal principles. While most present-day people would view The Door McAllen Church’s condemnation of homosexuality as oppressive, the tension between an author’s moral values and rights against fair use and religious use will prompt future discussions of racism, religious freedom, and individual freedoms. 

As of August 23, 2022, the dispute between Hamilton the Musical and The Door McAllen Church has been settled by The Door McAllen Church paying an undisclosed amount of damages which the Hamilton team has since donated to an LGBTQ-rights organization. While it is unclear which argument Lin-Manuel's legal team took to achieve this outcome, he undoubtedly had a strong copyright claim against The Door McAllen Church’s unauthorized usage of Hamilton content.