Movie Copyright Laws

Movie Audience
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Copyright laws prohibit individuals and organizations from copying or reproducing original works without permission from their creators. Movie copyright laws generally apply to theft of content and unlicensed public performances. Title 17 of the United States Code contains the Federal Copyright Act and Section 106 states that the owner of the copyright in any movie or motion picture has the exclusive right to perform, display, copy and reproduce the movie.


Section 101 of the Federal Copyright Act defines a motion picture as an audiovisual work that consists of a series of related images that impart an impression of motion when shown in succession. The definition includes both silent and non-silent movies.

Content Theft

Copyright laws prohibit unauthorized copying of movies. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the majority of thieves use a camcorder to record movies in theaters, and then distribute copies for profit. Other methods of stealing content include online copying and illegal copying of DVDs.

Public Performance

Section 101 of the Federal Copyright Act defines public performance as performing or displaying a work at a place open to the public or outside a normal circle of friends and family. According to Section 202, ownership of the copyright must be distinguished from ownership of the material object that contains the work. If you buy a movie on DVD, you own the DVD, but do not own the copyright of the movie. Many people enjoy watching movies in the company of others -- and copyright laws allow them to invite a few friends over to watch a movie, provided it is within their own home.


If you want to show a movie in a public place, you must purchase a license to do so. Unlicensed public performances are classified as federal crimes and incur a penalty of up to $150,000. Licensing fees vary and depend on the age of the movie and the size of the audience.

Fair Use for Educational Purposes

Section 107 allows the reproduction of a copyrighted work in certain non-commercial settings such as educational establishments. According to Section 110, a class teacher may show a movie as part of a class, provided that the copy of the movie has been validly obtained and is not a pirate copy.

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