Lights. Camera. Action.

Movies are a great way to reach out to other students, but student groups are often unclear about copyright restrictions. Most movies are copyrighted and cannot be legally shown in a public setting without permission from the copyright holder. It doesn’t matter whether you charge admission or not. This page explains the copyright restrictions associated with movies and gives suggestions on how to plan a movie showing.

Can't cover the costs?

Consider going to the ASPLU appropriations board and applying for funds to show your film.

The FBI Warning

The FBI Warning at the beginning of a video says, “Federal law provides severe civil and criminal penalties for unauthorized reproduction, distribution or exhibition of copyrighted motion pictures.” This text appears on movies released for home use and is based in copyright law. In essence, the FBI warning is saying that you can’t show the video outside your home. Nearly all of the movies you borrow from the Library, rent or buy are intended for home use and cannot be shown in a public setting.

Definition of Public Showing

Many student groups think, “Our event’s free, so we should be able to just show the video.” The issue is not whether you charge admission, but whether you show the video in a public setting. The definition of a public showing of a movie, according to copyright law, is to “display it 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 is gathered.” Advertising your event or holding it in an open space like the Ingram or the Cave would constitute a public showing.

Getting Permission to Show a Movie

Getting permission to show most popular, mainstream movies is fairly simple, but make sure you do it early in your planning process. It takes time and, in most cases, money. The price for showing a movie can be up to $100 or more, depending on the size of the group and the movie’s popularity. For rare or international films, the process can be complicated because the copyright holder may not be immediately apparent.

Contact the movie distributor and obtain permission to show the film. Many titles are available from the following sources:

  • SWANK Motion Pictures, Inc.
  • Copyright Clearance Center
  • Criterion Pictures, USA
  • Kino International
  • New Yorker Films

When you contact the distributor, be prepared to provide the following information:

  • Your name and the name of your organization
  • Where and to whom you will show the film
  • How your organization will pay for the rights to show the movie
  • Contact information for your organization
  • Whether or not you need a copy of the film
Films with Public Performance Rights

The Library owns a small number of films that were purchased with Public Performance Rights. Videos with Public Performance Rights usually can be shown as long as you don’t charge admission. Often these works are documentaries purchased from independent distributors, and have not had a major release in movie theaters. In other words, although many of these videos are excellent, you may have never heard of them.


If you have any questions, please contact:

  • Student Involvement and Leadership at 253-535-7195
  • Mortvedt Library at 253-535-7500
Source of this document: University of Washington, Tacoma Library Media Collection