A copyright, often denoted by the © symbol, protects ownership in original works of authorship, including movies. Copyright holders enjoy the exclusive right to publicly perform and display their works. Federal copyright law defines “publicly” as, “to perform or display it at a place open to the public or any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances are gathered.” Accordingly, showing a movie as a classroom reward or hosting a community movie night is a public performance that may infringe upon a copyright, unless an exemption applies or the school obtains a license from the movie’s copyright holder.
Teachers and students, however, may show a copyrighted movie “in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction.” To qualify for this exemption: (1) the movie’s source (e.g., DVD or tape) must not be bootlegged or otherwise improperly recorded; (2) the teacher must physically attend the showing in a school facility; (3) the movie must be shown as a teaching tool rather than a recreational activity; and (4) the school must not charge admission for the showing.
Another copyright exemption allows for a movie to be posted online for public display if: (1) the showing of the movie is at the direction of a teacher as an integral part of a class session, and directly related and of material assistance to the teaching content; (2) the movie’s transmission is solely for enrolled students; (3) the school has a copyright policy; (4) informational copyright materials are provided to staff and students; and (5) students are notified that the movie is subject to copyright protection.
If either exemption applies, permission from the movie’s copyright holder to display the movie is not needed. Otherwise, a school must pay a fee to the copyright holder or the licensing company to avoid infringement. Fortunately, some licensing companies have obtained the rights to a variety of prominent movie copyright holders (i.e., movie studios), which enable school officials to contract with a licensing company to obtain access to many movies.
Showing a movie or documentary at school may violate federal copyright laws and subject the school to a demand for fees. Statutory damages for copyright infringement range from $750 to $30,000 per movie or other copyrighted work. While federal copyright laws allow courts to reduce monetary damages to not less than $200 for infringers who had no reason to believe that their acts constituted copyright infringements, courts rarely exercise that discretion.