Have you shown a movie at your library for a program? Did you check to see if you have the license to do a public performance of that movie first? If you don’t have a public performance license, you may have been in violation of copyright law – and as librarians, we need to take this more seriously than I’ve seen out in the wild world of public library teen programming. You may think it’s harmless to show Star Wars: A New Hope at your library without a public performance license, but it won’t be so harmless if you get hit with a $250,000 fine and possible jail time. Not that that’ll happen, but…is it worth the risk?
Understandably, it’s not immediately obvious that you need a public performance license if no one’s told you and it wasn’t addressed in graduate classes. After all, we collect books and loan those out for use without copyright concerns, and even do readings and storytimes from them, so what’s the difference when you take a movie the library owns and show it to the public? The law is different for these two mediums, though, and we need to be responsible about ensuring we follow copyright law. Ignorance of copyright law won’t save you in court. While I couldn’t find any instances of a library actually getting fined for copyright violations due to not having a public performance license, I wouldn’t think being the first one is on anyone’s bucket list.
Here’s another really, really important thing to consider – do you have meeting rooms that members of the public can reserve? Do they have the capability to watch movies in those meeting rooms? Can more than one unrelated patron see the same screen in the computer lab? If so, then you need to have a public performance license because you can be held liable for those viewings as an organization! This is called being a “contributory infringer”, and even applies for patrons that are watching copyrighted material on computers (personal or library-owned) in the library.
Realistically, you’re not going to be able to get public performance licenses for every copyrighted work out there. For instance, the Miyazaki films (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, etc.) are notoriously difficult to get the performance rights to, so there are some things you’re just not going to be able to show. However, there are two big licensing organizations that will cover nearly every movie you’ll want to show: the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation (MPLC – http://library.mplc.org/), and Movie Licensing USA (via Swank Motion Pictures, Inc. – https://www.swank.com/public-libraries/). Pricing is typically population based, and also usually only counts one location, so if you have a multi-branch system you may need a performance license for each branch location.
You may have heard that there are exceptions for libraries in regards to public performance licenses, but this is not accurate. There are no exceptions for educational, non-profit, or free of charge viewings. There are very, very few exceptions, but 99% of the time they will NOT apply to library programming. Washington and Lee University has a very good explanation and I’ll provide a link to it in the resources below.
I know none of this is really fun to hear, but it’s necessary that we adhere to copyright law as librarians. “Copyright is at the core of almost everything that libraries and librarians do” (http://www.ala.org/advocacy/copyright), and ignoring that ignores one of the most important aspects of our profession.
Listed below are a number of resources about how to screen movies legally, licensing organizations, and more: