In a previous question, we explored the ability to show motion pictures in the classroom and as part of an educational film series sponsored by, for example, the French Department at a university. That question stirred a few follow-ups from readers. Here is the first:
Our library purchases many motion pictures and other audiovisual works, typically on DVD. Sometimes the transaction is a simple purchase, but often the films are sold at different prices (i.e., higher prices) for libraries and educational institutions. In addition, the sales to libraries often include additional terms on the purchase order or invoice about “performance rights” and such. Do I have to pay the higher price? Is the fine print that purports to restrict uses of the film valid and enforceable?
Good questions. Let’s deal with the first one. Here is a common situation: You can find a film on DVD in a store or online available to the public for $20. You can find the same DVD from your library supplier at the special “educational” price of $120. Discrimination? Certainly! Probably perfectly legal, but crummy. Quite simply, the supplier is pricing it higher because some libraries can afford it. The supplier might also rationalize that libraries squeeze more uses from one disk, perhaps even displacing some individual sales. Maybe. Whatever the rationale, may a library just buy the $20 version for the collection? Legally, the answer is probably yes in ordinary situations. A library is generally free to shop at Target or Amazon for movies, they they have what you want. In the process, I would watch for these possibilities: First, if the sale appears in any way clearly and contractually limited to individuals only, and not to libraries, I would pause to confirm whether I am under any contractual obligation. Second, I might have some ethical hesitation. Many specialized and technical films simply do not make many individual sales, and the “educational price” may be part of the bargain to sustain the market. Frankly, I have to balance that against the ethics of charging more. Bottom line: Retail purchases of mass-market DVDs are likely fine, but give another look when buying more specialized works or when contractual obligations are injected into the deal.
[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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