Copyright Q&A: Movies in the Dormitory

by Kenneth Crews on May 2, 2011

A previous question about showing motion pictures in the classroom and as part of an educational film series stirred an earlier follow-up from readers.  Here is a second question:

I have read your general guidance about when I can show movies in the classroom.  My question is about showing films in university dormitories.  I am assuming that a typical bunch of students gathered in an average dorm room to watch a movie is okay.  I also suspect that a planned “movie night” advertised in advance and open to all students in an auditorium is probably not okay.  What about the large group that spontaneously gathers in the dorm lounge when someone has the latest new movie?  When does that event turn into a “public performance”?

Let’s separate two points.  First, what is a public performance?  If the performance of a copyrighted work is “public,” then it treads on the rights of the copyright owner.  Second, even if it is “public,” when is the performance allowed anyway?  We previously have outlined some circumstances about when you may show the film, even to a large group and maybe even at an event open to the public.  At the university, we are often able to fit the performance within the classroom exception at Section 110(1).  More about that possibility here and here.  “Movie night,” for entertainment purposes, is not likely to qualify.

Which takes us back to the fundamental question: What is a public performance?  If a big, open, advertised event is “public,” how closed does the event have to be to transition into being a “private” performance?  The Copyright Act offers a few possibilities for defining a “public performance,” but this is the provision of greatest relevance: “to perform . . . it 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 is gathered. . .” (see the definitions in Section 101).  The performance may be public simply because the film is shown at a place open to the public.  Dorm rooms and even lounges and other common areas are usually not open to the public.  Courts have ruled that semi-public locations, such as private clubs are “open to the public,” but dorms are different.  You have to apply to the college, be admitted, register, and (we hope) use your passkey every time you enter the building.  At least one court has ruled that watching movies in a hotel room is not a public performance.

The statutory language quoted above also indicates that showing the movie in the dorm lounge may be “public” for other reasons.  Consider this variation on your question: The student in the dorm proudly announces that she has the hottest new movie and pops the disk into the DVD player attached to the big screen TV in the dorm lounge.  Other students are ready for a break and soon more than 40 or even 50 students gather to watch.  The performance may be public if attended by a “substantial number of persons” and if those persons are outside the “normal circle” of family and friends.  We don’t have any legal precision about the “number of persons.”  The best gauge may be custom.  If 40 students in the lounge is typical in a big dorm, then that may be okay.  Even if the number is deemed “substantial,” the gathering may be okay if it is within the “normal circle” of family and its social acquaintances.  This is a tough call.  The language really begins with identifying a “family.”  A report from Congress (see page 64 here) does graciously note that one person living alone could constitute a “family.”  So if that “student-family-person” gets the party started, are all of the other people who gather around the screen her normal circle of social acquaintances?  The answer depends on the size and character of the usual gathering of friends in a dorm setting.  If a shout down the hall for an impromptu party among dorm friends would draw 40 happy people who know one another well, then this assembly may qualify as “family and friends,” rather than as a “random flash mob.”  In that event, the performance may not be deemed “public” and thus would not violate the law.

If you are looking for an absolute and air-tight legal answer to this situation, there isn’t one.  Yet it seems reasonable to conclude that an impromptu movie gathering–not advertised in advance, with no elaborate planning and certainly no admission fee, realistically attended only by the dorm residents who frequent that particular lounge–would not be a public performance.  Showing the movie should be okay.  Enjoy the vampires.

[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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