Our French program has started a weekly movie night, where we show French movies to a small audience of our own students. No admission fee is charged, and we include an introduction and discussion, also in French. The entire event is designed to improve French comprehension among students. Do we need to obtain permission from the copyright owners to show these movies?
Showing movies on campus is common. Teachers include movies in the classroom, and student groups promote “movie nights” at the dormitories or theaters on campus. Some showings are permitted under the law, and some require permission. The basic point is that showing a movie (or for that matter, acting out a play, singing a song, or reciting poetry) can be a “public performance” of the work. The copyright owner generally holds the rights of public performance, and you might have to secure permission. On the other hand, some public performances are allowed under the Copyright Act.
The type of film screenings you describe may be allowed without permission for various reasons, such as if the film is in the public domain, or if your use is within a copyright exception. Some of these possibilities are outlined at our general guidance about performances of films and other works. You may fit within the exception at Section 110(1) of the Copyright Act. That provision allows screenings in the context of teaching activities, if the class meets in a face-to-face classroom setting of a nonprofit educational institution. The statute allows performances as part of “teaching activities,” and not just in regularly scheduled courses. Not everyone will agree, but the statute may apply to uses in supplemental educational programs, such as your French movie nights. In order to better fit within the exception, you might avoid broad advertising, and you could announce the events only to students in the French program. In other words, don’t make the screenings “public.” The discussions before and after—led by an instructor—as well as your intended purpose of supplementing French comprehension may also help strengthen your position.
Be sure to note that Section 110(1) permits only showing or performing the films. It does not permit making any copies, even of clips. It certainly does not permit digitizing or loading a copy onto a computer server for online viewing. Nevertheless, such copying and posting may be allowed, but under another statute, such as the TEACH Act or fair use. That is a longer story. The law does not allow everything, but it opens some important opportunities.
[This Q&A is courtesy of the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University. It is for information purposes and is not legal advice.]
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