Showing or “performing” a motion picture can be important for teaching and other instructional activities. In many situations, it is also perfectly appropriate under copyright law, but not all “public performances” are lawful. The copyright law attempts to balance the interests of the public with the interests of authors in their creative works. The law gives copyright owners several exclusive rights, including the exclusive right to give public performances of their copyrighted works, but the law also permits some performances of these works by others as summarized below. These principles are generally true, whether the work is a feature film, an educational video, downloaded from the web, recorded off-air, or stored on VHS or DVD.

Possession of a video does not confer the right to show it in public. The copyright owner specifies, at the time of purchase or rental, the circumstances in which a video may be “performed.” For example, rented videos usually bear a label that specifies “Home Use Only”. Showings of such videos may not be advertised nor may they take place in large venues. Advertised or public showings require an explicit license (either associated with the video or arranged through a video rental service)

Most uses of lawfully owned or rented copies of video recordings in face-to-face teaching activities in the classroom or via dissemination through a digital network as an integral part of a class session are permitted provided certain conditions are met. See the TEACH Act Checklist for help in assessing these conditions. The relationship between the video and the course must be explicit. Videos, even in a face-to-face classroom setting, may not be used for entertainment or recreation, whatever their intellectual content.

Allowed: A showing or performance that is private and not a public performance.

A performance can be “public” if it is at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances are gathered. Therefore:

  • The smaller the viewing group, the less likely it will be a public performance.
  • Open invitations and advertisements to the public can make the performance “public.”

Allowed: The showing or performance is in the course of teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution.

All the member institutions of the Claremont University Consortium qualify as a nonprofit educational institutions and a performance is most likely to fit within the exception if:

  • The performance is in a classroom or similar location for instruction (Note: this exception applies only in the face-to-face setting and not to a broadcast or transmission).
  • The performance is part of a teaching activity, however it does not have to be part of a regular course; therefore, host a related discussion forum or arrange for a student or instructor to lead an educational program related to the film.

Allowed: The copyright owner has granted permission for the performance.

The copyright owner is typically the creator of the work. For example, most movie studios hold the copyright to their works.

  • Obtain permission in writing if possible. While an oral agreement may suffice, written agreements always are preferable.
  • Some film rental companies offer a “public performance license” for a fee.

Allowed: The performance is of a film that is in the public domain.

Copyright protection does not last forever. However, the rules for determining the duration of protection can be extremely complicated and may depend on facts that are simply undiscoverable without many hours of research. One bright line rule does exist: any work published in the U.S. before 1923 is in the public domain.