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December 2016

Bad Movie: Motion Picture Copyright Misconceptions

by Eileen Korte

Eileen Korte

Eileen Korte

For several years, I have been reaching out to industry associations and meeting professionals to increase awareness of motion picture copyright compliance. Surprisingly, some meeting professionals are unaware that almost all uses of motion pictures and other audiovisual programs at meetings, conferences and events require a public performance license in accordance with federal copyright law.

Copyright can seem like a complex issue. However, the simple reality is that if movies or short scenes are shown at a meeting, a public performance license is likely required.

With fines for noncompliance starting at $750 for each inadvertent infringement, and going as high as $150,000 for each egregious violation, common copyright misconceptions can lead to costly legal problems:

  • Misconception: Only the person “pressing play” is liable for copyright infringement.
  • Reality: There is shared risk and the host organization can have vicarious or contributory liability for allowing speakers or guests to infringe.
  • Misconception: Our use of movies is educational so we don’t need a license.
  • Reality: The educational exemption in the copyright law is narrowly defined and applies only to full-time, nonprofit, educational institutions devoted to instruction. It does not apply to foundations, associations or educational groups.
  • Misconception: Our use of movies falls under fair use.
  • Reality: Fair use is a defense presented in, and ultimately determined by, a court of law. Guessing ahead of time that an exhibition falls under the fair use exemption is not a guarantee that someone won’t bring a copyright claim against you or that a court will find that your use did not in fact require a license. There is a four-part test in determining whether or not a use is fair use. One of the criteria is to determine whether the use is for reporting the news, for example, or for a commercial purpose.

Some meeting professionals ask if there are any scenarios where a motion picture public performance license is not required.

The best course of action is to ensure compliance before your meeting, conference or event has taken place. Public performance licensing can provide blanket coverage for a variety of motion picture studios and producers under a single license agreement. Once licensed, an unlimited number of movies by represented producers may be shown in whole or in part.

Meeting professionals can also secure a one-time public performance licensing to cover a single conference, meeting or presentation. In addition, for meeting professionals working for a specific association or organization, annual licensing provides unlimited annual coverage for all events.

By securing a public performance license, meeting professionals gain the legal peace of mind that guests and speakers who choose to show movies are in full compliance with copyright law. Purchasing a license is a simple and affordable solution to a potentially expensive problem.

Best of all, with a license in place, rather than policing your speakers, you can encourage them to incorporate visual media into their presentations with the assurance of copyright compliance.

  • No license required if: You show something that already includes public performance rights. Some copyright holders sell special versions of their works that include public performance rights. These versions are usually purchased directly from the copyright holder or manufacturer.
  • No license required if: You show something in the public domain. These are not merely “black and white” movies, and in reality, very few popular titles are in the public domain. Generally, 95 years must have passed since the title’s publication, but the only way to know for sure if a title is in the public domain is to contact the Library of Congress.
  • No license required if: You received permission directly from the copyright holder. The copyright holder could grant your public performance license request, but it is more likely that they would refer you to a licensing organization or license you themselves.

Eileen Korte is vice president of the Licensing Division for the U.S. office of Motion Picture Licensing Corporation (MPLC). For over 10 years, she has worked with nonprofit organizations, government entities and corporations to ensure comprehensive motion picture copyright compliance through the Umbrella License®. Learn more about MPLC’s Umbrella License solution for meeting professionals at www.mplc.org or e-mail Eileen directly at ekorte@mplc.com.

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