Everything You Need to Know About Movie Licensing for Public Use

graphic illustrating movie licensing, with a clapperboard on the left and licensed badge on the right

Drive-in movies and watch parties are ever-increasing in popularity in the world of the novel coronavirus. As socially distanced LED 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?

There are a number of third party movie licensing companies. The most popular one with the best customer service is Swank Motion Pictures, Inc. Simply let them know the title that you are looking to license, and they will guide you through the process of obtaining the appropriate license.

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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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graphic illustrating movie licensing, with a clapperboard on the left and licensed badge on the right