Showing Films and Other Media

Showing or “performing” a motion picture at the university can be important for teaching and other university activities, but the performance must be made in compliance with copyright law. One of the rights of the copyright owner in the film is the right to make a “public performance” of it. Therefore, the performance of a copyrighted film must be made only with permission from the copyright owner or consistent with one of the exceptions or limitations in the copyright law.

As outlined below, the law does provide many opportunities for showing films at the university, but one usually must begin with the following assumptions:

  • Most audiovisual works used at the university are in fact protected by copyright. Copyright protection lasts for many decades, and usually only some of the earliest motion pictures are in the public domain.
  • Many performances of copyrighted works are “public” and therefore may be a violation of the copyright owner’s rights. 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. As a result, a “public performance” can take place in a classroom, a dormitory lounge, or a campus theater or auditorium.

Nevertheless, copyright law includes several possibilities for properly showing copyrighted audiovisual works. [Note: This document is only about the “performance” of the work. Making a copy of all or part of the work must be addressed separately.]

Allowed: Performing a work privately, and not publicly


A performance may not be “public” if the place is closed to the public, and the audience is not a “substantial” number of persons. Therefore:

  • The smaller the viewing group, the less likely it will be a public performance.
  • Gathering a large group of friends or using a common room in a residence hall can make the performance “public."
  • Open invitations and announcements to the public can make a performance “public.”

Allowed: Performing a work in the course of teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution

Copyright law includes a code section specifically permitting performances of works by nonprofit educational institutions. A performance may 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, transmission, or online display).
  • The performance is part of a teaching activity, although it does not have to be part of a regular course. Therefore, an instructor may host a related discussion forum or arrange for a student or instructor to lead an educational program related to the film.

These rules are specified in Section 110(1) of the U.S. Copyright Act, but a separate statute provides for performing a work through any “transmission” to students, such as through distance education or from a university server. That statute, known as the “TEACH Act” and codified at Section 110(2) of the U.S. Copyright Act, may be used only by complying with numerous conditions and requirements. Consult the Copyright Advisory Office for additional information.


Allowed: Performing a work with permission from the copyright owner

The creator of the work is typically the copyright owner or other rightsholder. In the case of motion pictures, movie studios usually hold rights in the works they create or distribute.

  • You may secure permission directly from the rightsholder. For more information about permissions, please visit Permissions.
  • Some suppliers of audiovisual works offer a “public performance license” for a fee, or they sell the work to universities with a performance license. If the library has purchased the work, consult with the librarians about whether it included performance rights.
  • One-time licenses may be available through companies such as Swank Motion Pictures.
  • Some motion pictures may be copyrighted, but licensed for broad uses through Creative Commons.

Allowed: Performing a work that is in the public domain


Copyright protection does not last forever, and when the copyright has expired, the work may be used without copyright restriction. For example, any work published in the U.S. before 1923 is in the public domain and may be used freely.

Allowed: Performing a work created by the U.S. government

Works created by the federal government are not protected by copyright and are in the public domain. However, works commissioned by the federal government may have copyright protection. Also, works produced by state, local, or foreign governments may have copyright protection. Federal government works in the public domain could include many military films and NASA space exploration footage.

Allowed: Performing a work within the limits of fair use

The law of fair use provides an exception to the exclusive rights of the copyright owner. For more information concerning the law of fair use, please visit Fair Use. In most situations, fair use requires careful application and judgment calls; consequently, the other opportunities outlined above are usually preferable to undertaking an analysis of fair use.

Most recent revision: 081809

Thanks to Michelle Choe, Kreg Katoski, and David Wong for their assistance drafting this document. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When making use of this page under the terms of the CC license, please include this form of attribution: "Used under a Creative Commons BY license from the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University, Kenneth D. Crews, director."  If your needs for the material are outside the scope of the license, please consider fair use or simply asking us for permission.

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Columbia motion pictures
08.27.11 at 4:00 am
Copyright Q&A: Movies in the Dormitory — Columbia Copyright Advisory Office
05.15.13 at 4:06 pm

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