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Licensing Movies for Public Use

Insane Impact
June 30, 2020

Drive-in movies and watch parties are ever-increasing in popularity in the world of the novel coronavirus. As socially distanced mobile LED screens and projection screens pop up more and more, so does the question “Do I need to do anything special to legally play my movie to the public?”

The answer is yes, you need to take an extra step by purchasing movie licensing if you want to play copyrighted content to the public. The good news is that it is affordable and easy to do. Learn everything you need to know about licensing your next movie or TV show here.

1. What is movie licensing?

Movie licensing refers to purchasing the rights to display a movie to a public audience. More specifically, the name of the license required is a public performance license.

Requiring the purchase of a public performance license ensures that the artists and businesses are fairly compensated for the work that they own the rights to. Since groups of people are consuming the media, then a “group rate” must be applied, aka the licensing fee.

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2. Do I need to purchase a public performance movie license?

Plain and simple, if you plan on displaying your movie in a public setting or to the public, then you need a public performance movie license.

You need a movie license regardless of the size of your event, whether or not you charge for your event, or whether you are a commercial or nonprofit entity.

If you are still wondering whether your event will require a public performance license, the Motion Picture Association of America states:

“The Federal Copyright Act (Title 17 of the US Code) governs how copyrighted materials, such as movies, may be used. Neither the rental nor the purchase of a copy of a copyrighted work carries with it the right to publicly exhibit the work. No additional license is required to privately view a movie or other copyrighted work with a few friends and family or in certain narrowly defined face-to-face teaching activities. However, bars, restaurants, private clubs, prisons, lodges, factories, summer camps, public libraries, daycare facilities, parks and recreation departments, churches, and non-classroom use at schools and universities are all examples of situations where a public performance license must be obtained. This legal requirement applies regardless of whether an admission fee is charged, whether the institution or organization is commercial or nonprofit, or whether a federal or state agency is involved.”

So private events with small groups of people on private property will likely not require the license, but public events of any sort will.

Popular applications for movie licensing include recreation centers, churches, parks, libraries, colleges and universities, elementary schools, bus companies, camps, hospitals, resorts, and prisons.

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3. Who is responsible for obtaining the license?

The business or entity that is hosting the event is responsible for obtaining the licensing. For example, if you rent an outdoor display from a third party provider, it is your responsibility to purchase the rights to display that movie, not the provider of the screen.

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4. What happens if I should purchase a license but don’t?

If you meet the above criteria for requiring a public performance license and fail to purchase one, here’s what can happen, according to the Motion Picture Association of America:

“Willful infringement of these rules is a federal crime carrying a maximum sentence of up to five years in jail and/or a $250,000 fine. Even inadvertent infringement is subject to substantial civil damages.”

Do we think that you will end up behind bars for displaying a movie in the park to a small group of people? No.

Should you still purchase the license to avoid potential legal trouble and to fairly compensate the copyright owners? Absolutely.

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5. What does my license allow me to do?

With your license, you are allowed to display the licensed piece of content on the specified day and to the predetermined estimated number of people. You may do this regardless of whether you are profiting off of the event or not.

You are not allowed to transfer the license to any other days, locations, or pieces of media outside of your explicit licensing agreement.

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6. How much does movie licensing cost?

Movie licensing pricing can range from $300 to $2,000+ depending on a number of factors. Some factors affecting the licensing price can include the number of people in attendance, location, application, revenue generated from ticket sales, and the film being displayed. Crowds of less than 200 people will be in the lower end of the price range, whereas crowds of $1,000+ people will be in the higher end.

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7. How do I purchase a public performance movie license?

The two main providers of movie licensing are Swank Motion Pictures, Inc and Criterion. Simply let them know the title that you are looking to license, and they will facilitate your purchase of the appropriate license based on the scope of your event.

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8. What if I’m not charging customers?

Regardless of admission or charging customers, you’ll still need a license for any show that’s considered public. If the showing is considered public, you are technically restricted by copyright law. Legally, showing a movie to the public regardless of admission would require a license.

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9. Do I need to license if I’m streaming a movie?

No ownership or streaming status is going to surpass the copyright law that’s at play when doing a showing that’s considered public. This means that anything from streaming services or movies that are owned will still need to be shown with a license.

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10. Am I allowed to charge admission to a movie showing?

Absolutely, one can charge for admission to a showing. If doing so, it would be best to contact the license provider in order to assure that it does not change any components of the license and that it doesn’t change the price. With a certain amount of profit in a showing, the price of a license may fluctuate.

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The bottom line

If you intend on displaying copyrighted material to a public audience, you will need a public use license. Obtaining the proper license is easy and affordable, and doing so will give you peace of mind knowing that you are playing by the rules.

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darell landers

Darrell Landers

CEO, Xtreme LED Screens