A copyright use case on film screenings

I have recently been answering several questions that seem to recur, in one form or another, quite frequently. As an extension to the copyright widgets that were well-received over the winter, therefore, I want to offer somewhat generic versions of these questions, along with my answers. I hope they will be useful to others, and even might spark discussions that will both improve my responses and benefit readers of this blog.

This first question was a version of the very common inquiry about when campus showings of films require either public performance rights or a license. The particular inquiry involved a group of films on a speific theme that were already owned by the University Libraries; the questioner, from one of our interdisciplinary centers, wondered rather generally about the legal requirements for show some of these films to groups.

The starting point is that a copyright owner has the exclusive right to authorize public performances of their works. For most films, the copyright owner will be the production company. A public performance is any performance given to a group other than the “normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances,” so almost all performances on campus (other than in a dorm room) are likely to be considered public.

There is one relevant exception to the general rule that the copyright owner has the sole right to allow or forbid public performances, and there are two general ways in which permission is obtained when that exception does not apply.

First, the exception is for performances “in the course face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction.” This broad exception is what allows the screening of films in classrooms by course instructors all over most college campuses, but there are also many campus screenings to which it does not apply. The language of this exception does not limit the allowed performances only to credit-bearing courses scheduled by the registrar, so there is apparently some leeway here. If a regular student group that meets for a clearly educational purpose wants to view a film, for example, I think that performance is allowable under the exception and does not require permission, especially if there is a faculty advisor for the group or some other clear connection to the institution’s curriculum.

On the other hand, campus showings of a film solely for entertainment (such as college film societies) or to which a general invitation is extended so that people with no connection to a specific educational focus of the institution might attend seem outside the scope of the exception. These sorts of showings have traditionally been based on some form of permission.

One way in which permission is obtained is by renting a copy of the film from an agency that includes a license for public performance in the fee charged. Campus film societies often use such an agency; Swank (http://www.swank.com/) is one that is a common source for campus licenses.

In this case, since the university already has the films, the next question would be whether any of them were sold with public performance rights. Some films purchased by the library do have such rights and some filmmakers only sell their work that way; generally these films cost about 10x more than a film without public performance rights, so price can tell us a lot about whether such rights were obtained (although it is not definitive).

Based on the general tone of the question, it sounds like the performances suggested would require permission, but since extensive detail about the intended audience for the films was not given, only the questioner ultimately will know enough to decide if these are public performances that fall outside the scope of the exception for face-to-face teaching activities.