Movie Licensing for Public Display in Libraries

429px-CinematographeProjectionDisclaimer: I am not a lawyer and the following does not constitute legal advice.

Movie events make great library programs, whether they’re targeted at children, teens, or adults. Conveniently, most libraries have vibrant and extensive circulating collections of DVDs to choose from. However, due to U.S. intellectual property laws, you’re likely prohibited from simply screening them publicly. In fact, civil penalties for unlicensed public performances start at $750 for each inadvertent infringement and go as high as $150,000 for each egregious violation.

Here’s some of the pertinent bits of the federal Copyright Act, Title 17 of the United States Code (skip ahead to avoid the legalese): 

  • According to The Copyright Act, only the copyright owner holds the exclusive right, among others, “to perform the copyrighted work publicly.” (Section 106)
  • The rental or purchase of a motion picture or other audiovisual work does not bear the right to perform the copyrighted work publicly. (Section 202)
  • Films may be shown without a separate license in the home to “a normal circle of family and its social acquaintances” (Section 101) because such showings are not considered “public.”
  • Films may be shown without a license to non-profit educational institutions for “face-to-face teaching activities” because the law provides a limited exception for such showings. (Section 110(1))
  • All other public performances of motion pictures and other audiovisual works are illegal unless they have been authorized by license. Even “performances in ‘semipublic’ places such as clubs, lodges, factories, summer camps and schools are ‘public performances’ subject to copyright control.” (Senate Report No. 94-473, page 60; House Report No. 94-1476, page 64).
  • Both for-profit organizations and non-profit institutions must secure a license to show films, regardless of whether an admission fee is charged. (Senate Report No. 94-473, page 59; House Report No.94-1476, page 62).

(Source for the above:

The way most libraries gain permission to screen films is through umbrella licenses from either one or both of the following companies (the licenses cover different films, so you’ll want to check carefully to see who, if anyone, covers the movies you want to show):

The Motion Picture Licensing Corporation. As of March, 2014, here’s their rate breakdown:

Library Service Area Population*
Price Per Location, Per Year
Less than 10,000 $115
10,000 – 50,000 $180
50,001 – 100,000 $230
More than 100,000 $280

Movie Licensing USA. Note that you must contact them for pricing information.


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