You are here: American University Office of General Counsel Showing Movies at University Events

Contact Us

Office of General Counsel 4400 Massachusetts Ave NW Washington, DC 20016 United States

Back to top

Showing Movies at University Events

Many departments and student organizations organize events that show a movie as a part of the event. Showing a movie involves copyrighted material owned by a third party. When you buy, rent, or borrow a recording of a movie, you normally obtain only the copy of that movie, and not the underlying copyright rights to publicly show that movie. These frequently asked questions will provide you some general guidance on showing movies at University Events.  

1. Do I need to be concerned with copyright law if I want to show a movie at an event?

Yes. The U.S. Copyright Act (Title 17 of the United States Code) governs how copyrighted materials, such as movies, may be used. Under copyright law, a copyright owner has the exclusive right of “public performance” in the work. Showing a movie is considered to be a “public performance” if either of the following is true:

  • You will be showing the movie to people other than members of your family or a small group of your friends.
  • You will be showing the movie in a place that is open to people other than members of your family or a small group of your friends (for example: a classroom, an auditorium, or a campus commons area), whether or not any such people attend.

Therefore, you must have the proper copyright authorization in order to publicly show a movie as an event.

2. Can I digitally stream a movie from, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ et. al. and show it in campus meeting rooms, lounges, or classroom spaces?

No. Movies, regardless of format, rented or purchased from stores or on-line services are intended for “home use only.” This means that neither the rental nor the purchase of the movie carries with it the right to show the movie outside the home, with the exception being for “face-to-face teaching” described in Question #4 below. Therefore, copyright permission needs to be obtained from the copyright owner prior to publicly showing the movie.

3. Can I show movies from my recorded personal collection in campus meeting rooms, lounges, or classroom spaces?

No. See answer to Question 2.

4. Can I show the entire movie if it serves an educational/academic purpose?

Regardless of whether the movie serves an educational/academic purpose, you generally need permission or a license to publicly show a movie in its entirety.

Permission or a license may not be necessary if your professor shows a movie in the course of his/her “face-to-face teaching” activities, in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction, provided that (i) the professor is present during the movie; (ii) the movie is used in the context of a discrete class session; and (iii) the copy of the movie being shown is a lawful copy. See 17 U.S.C. § 110(1). This “face-to-face teaching” exception encompasses instructional activities relating to a wide variety of subjects, but it does not include performances for recreation or entertainment purposes, even if there is cultural value or academic appeal.

5. Can I use short clips of movies for events?

Under certain conditions, the use of short clips of a movie may be permissible under the fair use provisions of the copyright law. Some of the considerations in applying fair use include the length of the excerpt; the purpose of the use (i.e., educational vs. commercial or for profit); the nature of the copyrighted work and the potential impact the use may have upon the potential market for or present value of the work. In general, the short clips of movies used for the purposes of educational discussion should be brief and should not constitute more than a small portion of the movie from which they are extracted. Any use of short clips of movies must be vetted through University Event Scheduling (UES) by filing out a questionnaire. The UES website has links to the required forms.

6. Can we show movies if we hold a discussion afterwards?

Not unless the event meets the fair use criteria outlined in Question 5 or is part of the “face to face teaching” exception outlined in Question 4.

7. What if the discussion is led by a faculty member?

Not unless the event meets the fair use criteria outlined in Question 5 or is part of the “face to face teaching” exception outlined in Question 4.

8. Can I show any movie from the AU Library in a public showing?

Generally, the answer is no. The library’s feature movie collections are not purchased for public viewing. However, the library does purchase public performance rights for some documentaries. Contact the Media Librarian at x3257 for questions about rights to any movie in the collection.

9. How do I obtain a license to show movies publicly?

A license to show movies publicly may be obtained from a variety of sources. The copyright owner of a movie is generally listed in the credits of the movie.  

  • The movie’s website may contain the basic information needed for this purpose.
  • Most movie production companies authorize this through specific, affiliated distribution companies. Student Activities (Mary Graydon Center, Room 271, x3390) can assist AU students, faculty, and staff in locating the companies with distribution rights.
  • Special arrangements for licensing are sometimes made by movie companies for movie showings by religious organizations, within certain conditions.

10. How much does it cost to obtain a license to publicly show a movie?

The cost for a license from distribution companies for public exhibiting varies depending on:

  • the age and release history of the movie
  • the movie’s popularity at the time or in the rental market
  • the requested format

Typically, a recent release of a commercial movie which is no longer showing in area theatres can cost anywhere from $500 to over $1,000 per day for the license. Older movies generally cost substantially less, but their status as ‘cult’ favorites may keep the license price high.

11. Are there alternatives to obtaining a license?

A letter of permission from the copyright owner may be substituted for proof of a license.  

12. Who should I contact for more information?

University Event Scheduling (UES) has instituted a more detailed review process for events that plan to show a movie. Please call UES x3939 if you have additional questions or access the UES website.