Community associations are often on the look-out for easy and low-cost events that bring the community together for socializing and fun. And, what could be easier than a community movie night? What too many associations don’t realize, however, is that the seemingly harmless act of screening a movie in your community association clubhouse may subject the association to liability for copyright infringement.
To explain, under Title 17 of the United States Code, known as the “Federal Copyright Act,” all movies that you rent at Netflix or Redbox, or that you buy at a store, are copyrighted. Neither the rental nor the purchase of a copy of a copyrighted work carries with it the right to publicly exhibit the work. Thus, while no additional license is required to privately view a movie or other copyrighted work with a few friends and family, absent a few defined exceptions, the Federal Copyright Act requires a special public performance license for any public showing of a copyrighted movie.
The Federal Copyright Act defines the term “publicly” as “to perform or display [a copyrighted work] 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.”
Under this definition, bars, restaurants, private clubs, lodges, factories, summer camps, public libraries, and churches are all examples of public situations where a public performance license must be obtained. The legal requirement to obtain a public performance license applies regardless of whether an admission fee is charged or whether the institution or organization is commercial or non-profit.
Case law strongly suggests that a community association’s showing of a copyrighted movie, even if it is shown at the community clubhouse to members and their families only, would constitute a public showing that requires a public performance license under the Federal Copyright Act. For example, in the case Fermata International Melodies, Inc. v. Champions Golf Club, Inc., 712 F. Supp 1257 (1989), a federal court in Texas held that a private golf club’s performance of a copyrighted work within the private golf club property to 21 golf club members and guests constituted a “public performance” under the Federal Copyright Act.
If your association violates federal copyright law by showing a copyrighted work without the proper license, then it can be subject to both civil and criminal penalties, including fines and incarceration, depending on the extent of the infringement. In fact, even unintentional violators of the Copyright Act face federal statutory damages of not less than $750 and up to $30,000 per infringement, plus attorneys’ fees and costs.
Luckily, avoiding potential liability under the Federal Copyright Act does not mean that you have to give up your community association movie night. You can easily obtain a public performance license by ordering the movies that you show through a licensing firm. These firms will ship the movie to you, similar to Netflix. While ordering through these firms will be more expensive than Redbox or Netflix, by ordering through these companies you can obtain the required public performance license for the movie so as to be in compliance with federal copyright law. Some examples of companies that offer public performance licenses are Swank Motion Pictures, www.swank.com, and Criterion Pictures, www.criterionpicusa.com.