Film & Video Copyright Policy

When you buy, rent, or borrow a DVD or videotape of a movie (or any other audiovisual work) made by someone else, you normally obtain only the copy, and not the underlying copyright rights to the movie. You certainly are free to watch the movie yourself, but, beyond that, your rights are quite limited by law. In particular, you do not have the right to show the movie to “the public”. In most cases, doing that requires a separate “public performance” license from the copyright owner.

To determine whether you need such a license, you must determine whether what you want to do would constitute a “public performance”, and, if so, whether there are any exceptions that would allow you to proceed nevertheless without a license. 

1. Is it a “public performance”?

The showing of a movie will be considered to be 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 Taproom), whether or not any such people attend.

2. Is there an applicable exception to the license requirement?

Even if your proposed showing 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 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.
  • Your copy of the movie came with an express license authorizing the particular manner of showing. 
  • The movie you wish to show is in the “public domain."
    • Even movies that are quite old can still be protected by copyright.
    • The Public Domain Movie Database publishes a list of movies it believes to be in the public domain, but it is neither complete nor authoritative.

Note that there is no general “educational”, “nonprofit”, or “free of charge” exception. Thus, most showings outside of the class context will require licenses.

Obtaining a Public Performance License

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
    • Most movies student organizations have shown in the past have been obtained through Swank Motion Pictures, Inc.,  or Criterion Pictures, USA
  • 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 less expensive 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.

In reading these materials, please keep in mind that they do not constitute, and should not 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 your club advisor, who will speak to RISD's General Counsel

Want to show a movie through your club or organization?

Read this page for the info you need to know. If you have any questions about movie licenses or about copyright law generally, please contact your club advisor.

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