Movie Copyright Laws

By Holly Cameron

Copyright laws prohibit individuals and organizations from copying or reproducing original works without permission from their creators. Movie copyright laws generally apply to theft of content and unlicensed public performances. Title 17 of the United States Code contains the Federal Copyright Act and Section 106 states that the owner of the copyright in any movie or motion picture has the exclusive right to perform, display, copy and reproduce the movie.


Section 101 of the Federal Copyright Act defines a motion picture as an audiovisual work that consists of a series of related images that impart an impression of motion when shown in succession. The definition includes both silent and non-silent movies.

Content Theft

Copyright laws prohibit unauthorized copying of movies. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the majority of thieves use a camcorder to record movies in theaters, and then distribute copies for profit. Other methods of stealing content include online copying and illegal copying of DVDs.

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Public Performance

Section 101 of the Federal Copyright Act defines public performance as performing or displaying a work at a place open to the public or outside a normal circle of friends and family. According to Section 202, ownership of the copyright must be distinguished from ownership of the material object that contains the work. If you buy a movie on DVD, you own the DVD, but do not own the copyright of the movie. Many people enjoy watching movies in the company of others -- and copyright laws allow them to invite a few friends over to watch a movie, provided it is within their own home.


If you want to show a movie in a public place, you must purchase a license to do so. Unlicensed public performances are classified as federal crimes and incur a penalty of up to $150,000. Licensing fees vary and depend on the age of the movie and the size of the audience.

Fair Use for Educational Purposes

Section 107 allows the reproduction of a copyrighted work in certain non-commercial settings such as educational establishments. According to Section 110, a class teacher may show a movie as part of a class, provided that the copy of the movie has been validly obtained and is not a pirate copy.

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What Are the Copyright Laws for Images?


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Music Copyright Laws and Playing a Song at a Meeting

Copyright laws protect original musical works from unauthorized copying, sale or reproduction. Before playing a song at a meeting, the organizers should make sure that they are not contravening the composer’s copyright. Two main issues are relevant here: First, whether or not the song has copyright protection and second, whether playing it at the meeting constitutes a public performance. The applicable legal provisions are contained in Title 17 of the United States Code.

Copyright Laws for Textbooks

U.S. copyright law gives an author the exclusive right to duplicate and distribute her original work for a certain number of years. These exclusive rights are limited by the public interest in ensuring materials can be freely reproduced in an educational context. During debate about revisions to the copyright law, a House of Representatives ad hoc committee reached an agreement with the Authors League of America and the Association of American Publishers regarding the use of copyrighted works in nonprofit educational institutions. Portions of this agreement were later codified in the 1976 Copyright Act.

Copyright Issues Involving Music

A piece of recorded music is covered by two copyrights. The copyright in the composition protects the music and lyrics, if any, and is usually owned by the songwriter. The producer or record company owns a separate copyright in the sound recording, which protects the audio engineering and production of the recording. These copyrights provide their owners with the exclusive right to make copies of the music and distribute it to others, perform the music and create derivative works.


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