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Public Performance Rights for Films

Showing a film or documentary in a library makes a popular program. This brief introduction explains the basics of the copyright issues associated with showing films in a library.

What is a copyrighted video recording?

Copyright is a property right that gives the copyright owner of an original work certain rights, including the right to authorize or prohibit public performance or display of that work. More than likely, every videotape and DVD in your collection is copyrighted.


What is a public performance?

According to the U.S. copyright law (Title 17, United States Code, Section 110), a public performance is any screening of a videocassette, DVD, videodisc or film which occurs outside of the home, or at any place where people are gathered who are not family members, such as in a library. Even if no admission is charged or if the screening is in a nonprofit organization or library, you need a public performance license to show a film.


How can I find out if a film has public performance rights?

  • Look for rights information on the video/DVD label, container, or on the screen when the film begins. Videos/DVDs with "home use only" rights usually, but not always, have statements indicating that. Videos/DVDs with public performance rights rarely have that information specifically stated.
  • If the first method fails, contact the copyright owner or the owner's authorized representative for rights information. If the film you’d like to show is a feature film, contact Swank, a distributor that manages rights for thousands of Hollywood films. If your film is not a feature film, contact the company distributing it. Or post your question, such as “who owns the public performance rights to the documentary FLOW?,” on the VideoLib discussion list.
  • If you can’t determine the rights for a particular video/DVD, it’s advisable to assume that it does not have public performance rights.

How can my library obtain public performance rights?

There are a few ways.

  • A common method is to purchase an umbrella (or blanket) license that will cover many films from multiple distributors. Two companies that public libraries commonly use are:
  • Sometimes you can buy a video/DVD with public performance rights upfront for a higher price. If you choose this alternative, you will have the rights for the title as long as you own the copy.
  • You can contact the rights holder and ask permission to screen a film at a particular event. The rights holder may deny your request, particularly if the film was recently released and currently generating revenue. Or, the rights holder may give you permission straight away, or grant permission but require that you pay a fee and get a license agreement, which would apply only to that particular event. However, you can negotiate the license fee and license terms.

What are some questions to ask when contacting a licensing service?

Licensing agreements vary a lot between companies, and some companies also have multiple options, so it’s best to get all the facts upfront when selecting a company and agreement. Some questions you might want to ask:

  • Which motion picture studios and distributors do you represent?
  • Do you represent all of the titles from those studios or distributors? What titles are excluded?
  • Do you offer umbrella licenses, or only for specific showings of specific titles, or both?
  • Does the umbrella license extend to uses outside of the library building?
  • What exactly does the license allow, and what does it not allow?
  • What is the price for your specific situation or need? Be sure to specify your community’s size.
  • Does the license restrict advertising of showings? How so?
  • To get a license for a specific public performance, may we use our own copy of the video/DVD, or do we have to use one that you supply?


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