Copyright Guidelines for Showing Movies, TV Shows, and other Audiovisual Works on Campus
When you buy, rent, or borrow a DVD, Blu-ray, or VHS tape of a movie, TV show, or any other audiovisual work made by someone else (referred to here generally as “film” for short), you normally obtain only the copy, and not the underlying copyright rights to the film. You are free to watch the film yourself, or with your family and a few friends, but most things beyond that are prohibited by law. You do not have the right to show the film to “the public.” In most cases, doing that requires a separate “public performance” license (often referred to as "PPR" short for "Public Performance Rights") from the copyright owner.
To determine whether you need a license, you must determine whether your film screening would constitute a “public performance.” If it does, there may be exceptions that would allow you to proceed without a license.
Looking for information on providing films for your course? Please visit Using Film in Instruction.
Please keep in mind that nothing on this page may be considered a substitute for specific legal advice. The resolution of legal issues frequently hinges on slight changes in the facts and circumstances, and your particular situation may well be different from those described in these materials. If you have questions about your situation, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for additional assistance.
Things to Consider around PPR
Is my film screening a “public performance”?
The showing of film is a “public performance” if either of the following is true:
- You will be showing the movie to people other than members of your family or a small group of your friends.
- You will be showing the movie in a place that is open to people other than members of your family or a small group of your friends (for example, a classroom, the auditorium, or the Tap Room), whether or not any such people attend.
(Generally speaking, showing film in your home or dorm room will not constitute a public performance, as long as you limit attendance to family and friends. Most other screenings will constitute public performances.)
Is there an applicable exception to the license requirement?
Even if your proposed screening will constitute a “public performance”, you still will not need to obtain a license if any of the following is true:
- You will be showing the movie in the course of “face-to-face teaching activities” (that is, not through digitization or other forms of electronic transmission) that will take place in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction (that is, not in an auditorium or other public venue, unless it is being used for, and restricted to participants in, the teaching activities), and you have a legitimate copy of the movie (which, in general, does not include one that you have videotaped yourself from a broadcast).
- Your copy of the movie came with an express license authorizing the particular manner of showing. (For example, some educational movies, such as those purchased directly from California Newsreel at the “institutional” price, come with licenses to show the movies for certain noncommercial institutional purposes.)
- The movie you wish to show is in the “public domain”. (Determining whether a particular movie is in the public domain can be quite difficult, and even movies that are quite old can still be protected by copyright. The Library of Congress publishes a list of movies it believes to be in the public domain that may be useful
Note, however, that there is no general “educational”, “nonprofit”, or “free of charge” exception. Even a showing that is all three of those things will require a license if it constitutes a “public performance” and does not fall within one of the exceptions listed above. Thus, most showings outside of the class context will require licenses.
If you do need a “public performance” license, you can obtain one in either of the following ways:
- By renting the movie directly from a distributor that is authorized to grant such licenses, such as Swank Motion Pictures, Inc., rather than from a video store.
- By contacting the copyright holder (generally the studio) directly.
In most cases, you will be eligible for a “non-theatrical” public performance license, which is considerably cheaper than what a commercial cinema must pay. Still, the cost is likely to be at least several hundred dollars, especially for the most recent movies. That may seem unreasonable, but keep in mind that inability or unwillingness to pay is not a valid defense to a copyright infringement lawsuit.
What about streaming services?
Access to content on streaming services like Netlix, Hulu, Disney+, Amazon, and similar services is restricted to individual users. Even if you have a paid account, you will need separate public performances rights to show it publicly, using the same criteria for evaluation as above. It is sometimes more frustrating with content that is exclusive to the streaming services, as they don't make everything available for license.
Information on this page was adapted from content developed by Steven J. McDonald, General Counsel Emeritus, Rhode Island School of Design with permission.
OGC Disclaimer & CC License
Information contained on this website is educational in nature and is not to be construed as legal advice.
If you seek legal advice, please contact the Office of General Counsel.
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