Frequently Asked Copyright Questions

I am involved in a theatrical, dance or musical production on campus. What do I need to know about copyright law?

An excellent and practical discussion of how to go about obtaining the necessary rights to produce plays and musicals on campus was prepared by Rachel Durkin, the Manager of Performing Arts at the College of Fine Arts of the University of Texas. You can find her discussion at the University of Texas website She also discusses how to obtain rights to use music in live performances (e.g., in a play or dance performance). For another extensive discussion of copyright law as it applies to theatre production, see the website of Louis Catron, Copyright Laws for Theatre People.

I’d like to show a video on campus. What do I have to do?

U.S. Copyright Law requires you to obtain permission first. Under federal law, the holder of the copyright for a movie has the exclusive right to control performances of that movie – including showings of the videotape.

How can you obtain permission?

There are a range of companies whose business is to grant permissions for the showing of films. Here are a few:

  • Swank Motion Pictures, Inc., 1-800-876-5577
  • Criterion Pictures, 1-800-890-9494
  • First Run/Icarus Films, 1-718-488-8900
  • New Yorker Films, 1-212-645-4600
  • Kino International, 1-800-562-3330

A good source of public domain films is Desert Island Films, Inc.. One other source of public domain films is the Telco Report website.

Are there any exceptions?

Yes, but they are limited, and strictly construed.

1. Home viewing

Videos rented from commercial outlets do not carry with them a public performance license and are intended for private home use only. For any public performance copyright permission must be obtained. To perform or display a work publicly means to do so “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 is gathered.”

2. Face-to-face teaching activities

Faculty members may show a film for educational purposes without obtaining copyright permission if and only if:

  • It is shown in the course of face-to-face teaching activities;
  • It is shown in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction;
  • The audience is limited so that only persons enrolled in or teaching the class (and any necessary staff) may attend; and
  • The copy of the film or video being shown was lawfully made or obtained.