Copyright Laws Related to Using Movies for Group Showing

By Larissa Bodniowycz, J.D.

Copyright Laws Related to Using Movies for Group Showing

By Larissa Bodniowycz, J.D.

Movies are protected by copyright law. When you buy, rent, or stream a movie, you obtain a copy of that movie, but you do not receive the underlying copyright to that movie. You are free to watch the movie for your personal entertainment, but your rights to show the movie to a group are more limited.

Audience in a movie theater

In particular, you generally cannot show the movie to the public without permission or a license. This is because a copyright grants the copyright holder the exclusive rights to distribute copies of the movie and show it publicly.

Private Showing vs. Public Showing

Most movies are intended for personal, private viewing only. If you're watching a movie in a group with your family and friends in your home, there is no issue under copyright law. Similarly, if you rent out a space for a private party and screen a movie for family and friends, and the party is exclusive to your guests and closed to the general public, there will not be a copyright law violation. However, if your event was open to members of the public outside your small group, the movie showing might be considered a “public performance."

If the showing is considered public, you are restricted by copyright law. Typically, you can't legally show a movie to the public unless you obtain public performance license from the copyright owner. You can obtain a public performance license by either contacting the copyright holder directly or by licensing from entities set up specifically for the purposes of licensing movies, such as Swank Motion Pictures or the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation.

The license requirement is not just for businesses trying to make a profit. It also applies to public libraries, nonprofit facilities, restaurants, senior centers, gyms, childcare centers, museums, private businesses, and anyone else who is showing a movie to the public. For example, if your city hosts an outdoor movie night in the summer, it needs to get the appropriate license. If you walk into a bar and it's playing a movie on its televisions, it needs a license. This also applies regardless of whether an admission fee is charged.

Exceptions When You May Not Need a License

There is a fair use exception to the general rule if you are playing the movie within a “face-to-face" teaching environment as part of a teaching activity. A teacher showing a movie to her class for teaching purposes, and not for recreational or entertainment purposes, for example, would not be problematic. If the teacher were showing the movie just for entertainment, however, he or she would need a license or permission.

Another exception to the general rule is with movies with expired copyrights. Under the Constitution, copyrights expire after a certain amount of time. For works published after 1977, a copyright will expire and a movie will fall into the public domain 70 years after the death of the author. Alternatively, movies published prior to 1978 will fall into the public domain if the copyright owner failed to renew a copyright within a certain period of time.

Many films from the earlier part of the 20th century have now fallen into the public domain. If a movie is in the public domain, you can show the movie, even to a public audience, without a public performance license. If you want to show a movie publicly and do not want to bother with the hassle and expense of obtaining a license, consider finding a public domain film. Just be careful to ensure the movie is truly in the public domain.

Now that you know a little more about copyright laws and movies, you can watch your favorites with your favorite people without legal risk.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.

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