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Copyright and Fair Use: Showing Movies in Class and On Campus

A review of current copyright issues and fair use guidance, with a focus on theological study and research.

Showing Movies in Class and On Campus - What You Need to Know

When you want to perform, display, or show a film, video, or TV program, whether it be as part of a course, at a group or club activity, at an organization event, or as a training exercise, you have to consider the rights of the those who own the copyright to the work you want to use. This consideration must be made regardless of who owns the video or where you obtained it. Copyright owners have the exclusive right to publicly perform their works and so there may be situations when permission must be obtained before a copyrighted work is publicly performed. 

When you're using a film, video, or TV program in a classroom for teaching or educational purposes, such performance or display of the entire work may be allowed without permission under the face to face teaching exemption at 17 U.S.C. §110(1).

When showing a film in an online class, it may be considered fair use depending on how much of the film is being shown and for what purposes. If fair use does not apply, you will need a streaming license or view the film through a licensed streaming film provider.

In most other cases, especially when the film, video, or TV program is being shown as part of an event, you need permission--often in the form of a public performance rights (PPR) license--to perform or show the copyrighted work.

This section of the LibGuide is adopted from work Christine Fruin did while employed by the University of Florida.

Do I Need a Public Performance License?

YES -- you need public performance rights:

  • If the showing of the video is open to the public, such as a screening at a public event, OR
  • If the showing is in a public space where access is not restricted, such as a a showing of a film for a class but in a venue that is open to anyone to attend, OR
  • If persons attending are outside the normal circle of family and friends, such as a showing of a film by a club or organization.

NO -- you do not need public performance rights:

  • If you are privately viewing the film in your home with only family and friends in attendance, OR
  • If you are an instructor showing the film in class as part of the course curriculum to officially enrolled students in a classroom that is not open to others to attend, OR
  • If the film is in the public domain

If PPR is required, there are two ways to obtain that permission or license:

1.   Contact the copyright holder directly, or contact the distributor.  If the distributor has the authority from the copyright owner to grant licenses, to purchase public performance rights or to request permission for a particular public performance use, permission or license can be directly obtained.

2.   Contact the licensing service representing the particular studio or title (note - this will generally be required for all feature length films). Services vary in the types of licensing offered and the scope of materials represented. 

Finding Free and Legal Streaming Film

There are many sources for streaming video content available that students can access on their own. For instance, subscription services Netflix and Hulu offer thousands of documentaries, mainstream film titles, and television programs on a streaming basis for an affordable monthly fee that most students likely already pay. Additionally, sites like Amazon and iTunes offer inexpensive streaming video rental. Instructors are encouraged to investigate availability of videos through these subscription services that they wish students to view and require students, as part of the class, to have one of these low-cost monthly services or to rent movies on their own time. There are also many online sources for free and legal streaming content:

Frequently Asked Questions about Showing Movies

Our student club wants to show a film but it is for educational purposes. There is a plan for discussion about the issues raised in the film after it's shown. Do we still need Public Performance Rights?
It depends. Ordinarily, the showing of a film by a group or club is for entertainment purposes and thus PPR is required. However, if the group's purpose and activities are ordinarily educational nature and the showing of the film is in furtherance of those educational purposes and activities, then it may be fair use to show the film without PPR. 

What about a film series hosted by a group or club that is open to and advertised to the public?
The showing of a film as part of a film series is viewed as entertainment even if hosted or sponsored by an educational group or club. No matter how educational the setting or how tied to the curriculum, this is generally considered not to be fair use and PPR must be obtained.

I own the DVD that the club I am a member of wants to show. Do I still need to get PPR?
It doesn't matter where the film you are planning to show comes from -- your own collection, the library's or the corner video rental shop. The analysis is the same. If an exception under copyright law does not apply (e.g. fair use, face to face teaching), then you must obtain PPR prior to showing the film.

What does "Home Use Only" mean? Does it mean I cannot show this DVD to my class?
Under copyright law, copyright holders have the exclusive right of performing or displaying their copyrighted works, including films or videos. The "Home Use Only" warning at the beginning of most DVDs refers to this exclusive right of performance and display. However, the law also has an exception for performing or displaying works in a face to face teaching situation where the work being performed or displayed is related to the curriculum and only being performed or displayed for students enrolled in a course at a non-profit educational institution. Therefore, under this exception, DVDs with the "Home Use Only" warning can be played in a face to face classroom. For online courses, refer to fair use for determining how much of the film can be shown.

May I show clips of films to my students as part of a lecture?
Generally, yes, this is permissible under fair use. Apply the four factors of fair use to determine whether the film in question may be used for this purpose and how much of the film may be shown. New exemptions under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act permit educators to "rip" clips from videos for educational purposes. 

The film I want to show is on Netflix. Can I stream this through my Netflix account in the classroom?
Subscription services such as Netflix and Amazon have very detailed membership agreements that may forbid the streaming of subscribed content in a classroom or other public venue. When you agree to the terms of membership, you enter into a contract and the terms of that contract trump any applicable exception in copyright. Therefore, if the membership agreement with Netflix prohibits the showing of the film in a classroom, you are bound by the terms of that agreement even if the face to face teaching exception would otherwise allow it.

Instructors who plan to show films as part of their class, particularly when the class is taught online, are encouraged to investigate the availability of films through Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and other subscription or short term rental streaming services and to require their students to access that content on their own through their own subscription or account.