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How Do I Find Out if a Movie Has Public Performance Rights? - Maryland State Library Resource Center

How Do I Find Out if a Movie Has Public Performance Rights?

Students, instructors, librarians, and film enthusiasts often want to show movies in a public setting for their clubs, classes or organizations. If this is you, please be advised that unless the movie is in the public domain or you acquire the movie with public performance rights, you will be breaking the copyright law. Just as you cannot rent a movie from the local video store and then screen it in a public space (because the rental is licensed only for home viewing), you cannot show movies in a public setting without first determining if you have permission to do so -- even if you're not charging admission.

In order to comply with copyright law, you should get the material from a vendor that rents or sells the title with public performance rights. The only exception to this rule is the face-to-face teaching exemption in which an instructor shows the material in a classroom as part of a class or teaching activity and not for recreation or entertainment.

The following resources will help you determine whether a movie has public performance rights and, if not, how to obtain them.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What are public domain movies? 

A: Public domain comprises the body of information and creativity considered to be part of a common cultural and intellectual heritage. In short, anyone may use or exploit, whether for commercial or non-commercial purposes. There are hundreds of movies, cartoons and dozens of television shows that are now in the public domain. The copyrights to many of these movies were either not properly registered initially or were not renewed and therefore the content is now in the public domain. Many of the most famous movies and cartoons are available for free viewing and free download at Moving Image Archive.  

For more information, see "How Do I Find Public Domain Movies?"

Q: What is a public performance? 

A: According to the U.S. copyright law (Title 17, United States Code, Section 110), a public performance is any screening of a videocassette, DVD, videodisc or film which occurs outside of the home, or at any place where people are gathered who are not family members, such as in a school, library, auditorium, classroom or meeting room. 

Q: What are movies with public performance rights? 

A: These are movies that have been purchased or licensed with the legal right to screen them in a public setting for a non-paying audience. Many vendors sell titles in two licensing versions: a version licensed for home use only (typically cheaper and without public performance rights) and an institutional version that is more expensive but includes public performance rights, permitting screenings for a non-paying audience in an institutional context.

Some vendors offer blanket or umbrella licenses for all titles (as opposed to selling individual licenses per title purchased).

Some vendors also have a library license version that may be for limited use (for loan within a library systems and patrons only) or full use (public performance rights and/or  interlibrary loan).  If you are not sure which version your institution purchased, you will need to contact the vendor.

For more information, see Helpful Web Sites Explaining Public Performance Rights.

Q: What does "home use only" mean? 

A:  In the case of motion pictures, including videorecordings, and of other audiovisual works, one of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner is to perform or display the work publicly. Unless videorecordings are sold or rented with public performance rights or are licensed for public performance, they should be considered home use only and should be restricted to private showings in the home to a "normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances." The only exception to this is the face-to-face teaching exemption.

Q: What is the face-to-face teaching exemption? 

A: The U.S. copyright law contains an exception that allows the lawful use of home use only videorecordings for public performance or display without the permission of the copyright owner. This is the so-called face-to-face teaching exemption allowing instructors to show videorecordings in a classroom as long as the activity is a teaching activity and not recreation or entertainment. This exemption is covered in Section 110 (1) of the U.S. Copyright Law, which allows the classroom use of video programs that have not been cleared for public performance if, and only if, all of the conditions set forth by the law are met.

Helpful Web Sites Explaining Public Performance Rights

Helpful Books Explaining Public Performance Rights

The "Legalities and Related Issues" chapter of Kati Irons' Film Programming for Public Libraries (American Library Association, 2014) contains useful information for ensuring that you are in compliance with laws relating to public screening of films, including a list of companies that provide or license Public Performance Rights. 

Pratt Movies with Public Performance Rights

What movies in Enoch Pratt's DVD/Video Reserves Collection can I show without having to get the copyright owner’s permission?

As long as you’re not charging admission, you may show any of the following films in the Enoch Pratt Video/DVD Reserves Collection without seeking the copyright owner’s permission:

  • All 16mm films in the Pratt catalog (16mm films are marked in our catalog by the XX or AUDIOVISUAL-MP designation)
  • All videos in Pratt catalog marked VIDEOTAPE (P) or AUDIO-VISUAL-1/2VC (P) 
  • Institutional (e.g., not home use only) versions of videos/DVDs from select vendors  that were purchased with public performance rights. These vendors are listed here: Vendors That Sell Movies with Public Performance Rights 

Vendors that Sell Movies with Public Performance Rights

Many vendors of educational videos/DVDs sell institutional versions of titles that automatically come with public performance rights. All titles purchased from the following vendors are institutional versions that come with public performance rights:

Other vendors of educational materials not listed above may also offer public performance licensing, but you will need to contact them in order to verify. The Media Resources Center of the University of California at Berkeley has compiled a helpful list with their Video Distributor Database.

How to Obtain Permission to Screen Copyrighted Movies

If a copyrighted movie is not licensed for public performance (i.e., it's licensed only for home use), you will need to to obtain permission from the copyright owner. There are two ways to do this:

  1. Contact the copyright holder directly, or contact the distributor if the distributor has the authority from the copyright owner to grant licenses, to purchase public performance rights or to request permission for a particular public performance use.
  2. Contact the licensing service representing the particular studio or title (particularly in the case of feature films). Services vary in the types of licensing offered and the scope of materials represented. See "Vendors that Grant Public Performance Rights" for more information.

Vendors that Grant Public Performance Rights for Copyrighted Movies

If you want to show a copyrighted film in a public setting, you will need to contact one of these licensing service companies to obtain permission.

Criterion Pictures USA, Inc. 
8238-40 Lehigh
Morton Grove, IL 60053-2615
1-800-890-9494 or 1-847-470-8164
Fax: 1-847-470-8194

Kino International Corp. 
333 W. 39th Street, Ste. 503
New York, N.Y. 10018
1-800-562-3330 or 1-212-629-6880
Fax: 1-212-714-0871
Email: or 

Milestone Film & Video 
P.O. Box 128
Harrington Park, NJ 07640-0128
1-800-603-1104 or 1-201-767-3117
Fax: 1-201-767-3035

Motion Picture Licensing Corporation (MPLC) 
5455 Centinela Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90066-6970
1-800-462-8855 or 1-310-822-8855
Fax 1-310-822-4440

Movie Licensing USA 
(A division of Swank Motion Pictures, Inc.)
10795 Watson Rd.
St. Louis, MO 63127-1012
K12 Schools: 1-877-321-1300
Libraries: 1-888-267-2658
Other organizations call Swank: 1-800-876-5577

New Yorker Films 
16 West 61st Street
New York, NY 10023
1-877-247-6200 or 1-212-247-6110
Fax: 1-212-307-7855

Swank Motion Pictures, Inc. 
(800) 876-5577

Ask Us

Need more assistance determining whether or not a movie has public performance rights?  Contact  the Best and Next Department at (410) 396-4616 or e-mail us through our  Ask A Question  service.