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Copyright and audio-visual works

Showing a film can be important for teaching and other College activities. In many situations, it is also allowed under copyright law, but not all uses, even those for educational or non-profit purposes, are lawful.

The law gives copyright owners several exclusive rights, including the exclusive right to give public performances (in this case showing a work in sequence and/or making its sound audible) of their copyrighted works. The law also permits some performances of these works by others, as summarized below. These principles are generally true, whether the work is a feature film, an educational video, streamed on the web, recorded off-air, or stored on VHS or DVD.

Use in teaching
Performing an audio-visual work in the course of teaching activities at a nonprofit educational institution is permitted. A performance is most likely to fit within the exception if:

  • The performance is in a classroom or similar location for instruction. This exception applies only in the face-to-face setting and not to a broadcast or transmission.
  • The performance is part of a “teaching activity.” The teaching activity does not have to be part of a regular course. Examples include discussion forums or educational programs related to the film led by a student or instructor.

Other use
Library-owned films rarely include public performance rights. Only performances which are not "public" are exempt from the requirement of a license from the copyright holder.

A performance can be “public” if it is 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 are gathered. Therefore:

  • Films owned by Amherst College may ordinarily be viewed in the Library at workstations or viewing rooms.
  • They may also be viewed at home (e.g., in a dorm room), so long as no more than a few friends are involved. The smaller the viewing group, the less likely it will be a public performance.
  • Open invitations and advertisements to the public can make the performance “public.”

Alternatives
1. Get permission.

  • The copyright owner is typically the creator of the work. For example, most movie studios hold the copyright to their works.
  • Obtain permission in writing if possible. While an oral agreement may suffice, written agreements always are preferable.
  • Some film rental companies offer a “public performance license” for an additional fee. No fees for viewing a video are permitted even when public performance rights are obtained.

2. Use a film for which permission is not required.

Although the rules for determining the duration of protection can be complicated and may depend on facts that are simply undiscoverable without many hours of research, one bright line rule does exist: any work published in the U.S. before 1923 is in the public domain.

Many copyright owners offer their works to the public with few or no restrictions. To use these works, make sure that the owner has given explicit permission to the public and heed any restrictions that may prohibit your planned use.

Sources of information about films that are in the public domain or have been offered to the public and how to obtain them include:

3. Use a work created by the U.S. government.

Works created by the federal government are not protected by copyright. However, works commissioned by the federal government and state government works may have copyright protection. Sources of U.S. government works in the public domain include:

Common questions
May I purchase or rent a film from the local video store and use it in my class?
    Although tapes from a video store are labeled "Home Use Only," use of such tapes is considered "fair use" in a face-to-face teaching situation. Tapes marked "Home Use Only" may also be placed on reserve and viewed in the Library if they are used strictly for instructional purposes and not for entertainment.

Is it permissible to make a copy of a rental video in order to use it again, later?
    No. That would infringe on the rights licensed to the rental agency.

Can an auditorium or other large space be used to show a video labeled "Home Use Only" to a class?
    Yes, so long as the performance is not open to the public and is for an instructional purpose within the structure of the course.

May a club or other group show a video obtained from a local video store?
    Only if the rental fee explicitly included public performance rights.

What if a student rents a video from a video store and views it with a few friends in her dormitory living room?
    Experts disagree, but since access to dormitories is limited to acquaintances of students, this seems to be comparable to "home use."

Am I permitted to circumvent technology that controls access to copyrighted works in order to make compilations of clips from films for my class?
    On November 27, 2006, the Librarian of Congress issued a rule that audiovisual works included in the educational library of a college’s film or media studies department, when circumvention is accomplished for the purpose of making compilations of portions of those works for educational use in the classroom by media studies or film professors, would not be subject to the prohibition against circumventing access controls during the next three years.

Responsibility
Send inquiries about this page to Bryn Geffert.