Exhibiting Movies in Office

Many times, I received requests from colleagues and friends seeking legal opinion on showing a movie in their office premises. In most of the situations, it may be an exhibition of a documentary or a short film of social significance to a small gathering of employees.

As a basic legal principle, a copyright is automatically created once an original work of authorship (example: an article, book, painting, photograph, video etc) is created in any tangible medium. Virtually all movies are therefore, copyrighted which prevents others from copying, distributing, performing, and digitally transmitting without a license.

When you buy a CD  of a movie, you normally obtain only the copy, and not the copyright rights to the movie. You shall not make copy of the film including a photograph of any image forming a part of the film or storing of it in any media or sell or give on commercial rental. All these activities are considered as a breach of copyright. However, if the movie is played privately, no violation occurs. But, beyond that, our rights are very limited by law. In particular, we do not have the right to show the movie to “the public.”

Generally speaking, showing a movie in your home will not constitute a public performance, as long as you limit attendance to family and friends. Most other showings will constitute public performances.

Now let us examine what amounts to public exhibition. The term public exhibition can be understood as communication of the Work to a large public. As per Copyright laws, communication to the Public shall mean making the film (or any work) available for being seen, heard or otherwise enjoyed by the public directly.

The word “public” has been interpreted by the Delhi High Court by analyzing the relationship of the audience with the owner of the copyright material. Considering this analogy, screening of the film in the office premises amounts to public exhibition because the owner of the film is the producer and your employees are public in relation to the producer.

In most cases, doing a public exhibition requires a separate “public performance” license from the copyright owner. To determine whether you need such a license, you must determine whether what you want to do would constitute a “public performance”, and, if so, whether there are any exceptions that would allow you to proceed legally without a license.

First, is it a “public performance”?

Courts often look at the nature of the establishment when determining if the showing is considered public or private. A hotel room or a private home is most likely considered a private viewing. However, Courts decided that if anyone can pay to get in the door, then it is a public showing and copyright infringement. It is important to look at the size and composition of the audience in order to determine if the movie showing is private. If the group showing is invite only and involves family and friends, it is a private showing. If everyone in the neighborhood is allowed in, including people you don’t know, a court would more likely consider it public.

The showing of a movie will be considered to be a “public performance” if either of the following is true:

  • You will be showing the movie to people other than members of your family or a small group of your friends.
  • You will be showing the movie in a place that is open to people other than members of your family or a small group of your friends whether or not any such people attend.

As a compliance requirement, as per section 5 of the Karnataka Cinemas (Regulation) Act, 1964 (similar Acts are in force in various other States) any person intending to give exhibition in a place (includes a house, building, tent, enclosure, and any description of transport, whether by water, land or air) shall make an application in writing to the Deputy Commissioner exercising the powers of the District Magistrate or an Additional District Magistrate for license. Even though it is ideal to obtain permission from District Magistrate to avoid any legal issues, considering the smaller employee gathering at your office and for one or two instances of such exhibitions in a year – it is not perceived as a major risk. But we should not compromise on the copyright of the owner by screening a movie at the office premises.

If so, is there an applicable exception to the license requirement?

Even if your proposed showing will constitute a “public performance”, you may not need to obtain a license if any of the following is true:

  • You will be showing the movie in the course of “face-to-face teaching activities” (that is, not through a mode of electronic transmission) that will take place in a classroom  and you have a legitimate copy of the movie (which, in general, does not include one that you have videotaped yourself from a broadcast).
  • Your copy of the movie came with an express license authorizing the particular manner of showing. (For example, some educational documentaries available at Netflix Media Center)
  • The movie you wish to show is in the “public domain.” (The Public Domain Movie Database (http://publicdomainmovies.net/) publishes a list of movies it believes to be in the public domain, but it is neither complete nor authoritative.)

Note, however, that there is no general “educational,” “nonprofit,” or “free of charge” exception. Even a showing that is all three of those things will require a license if it constitutes a “public performance” and does not fall within one of the exceptions listed above. Thus, most showings outside of the class context will require licenses.

If you do need a “public performance” license, you can obtain one in one of the following ways:

  • By renting the movie directly from the production company that is authorized to grant such a license.
  • By contacting the copyright holder directly.

In most cases, you will be eligible for a “non-theatrical” public performance license, which is considerably cheaper than what a commercial cinema must pay. Still, the cost is likely to be a big amount, especially for the most recent movies. That may seem unreasonable, but keep in mind that inability or unwillingness to pay is not a valid defense to a copyright infringement lawsuit. There are cases where student organizations showing films for entertainment were held responsible for paying royalties.

Fair use allows the use of copyrighted material in a reasonable manner without the consent of the owner. Typically, the use is considered fair if it is for commentary, criticism, education or research. Courts look at several factors when deciding if the use is fair. If the group is watching a factual movie, doesn’t charge money for the viewing, and watched the movie for educational or critical analysis, a court would more likely consider the use fair. However, if just for enjoyment and there is no discussion, the court will likely find infringement of the copyright – and many times such a legal analysis is subjective.

What about Netflix movies?

Generally all Netflix content viewed through the service are for your personal and non-commercial use only and may not be shared with individuals beyond your household. Hence you should not use your account for public performances. But some Netflix Original educational documentaries are available for one-time educational screenings subject to its terms and conditions.