Is it legal to show a movie at school?

Understanding the Concept of Copyright

Before we delve into the legality of showing movies in schools, it is crucial to understand the concept of copyright. A copyright is a legal right that gives the creator of an original work exclusive rights to it, usually for a limited time. This generally means that without the explicit permission of the copyright holder, no one else can reproduce, distribute, or display the protected work. The world of film is no exception to this rule, with each movie having its unique copyright protection.

Movie producers and distributors often sell their films with licenses that restrict where and how they can be shown. For example, a DVD you purchase at a store typically comes with a license that only allows for private, home use. Showing such a DVD in a public setting like a school could potentially infringe upon the copyright.

What is the Educational Exemption?

Now that we have a basic understanding of copyright laws, let's look at a special provision known as the educational exemption, or “face-to-face teaching exemption.” This exception allows for the display or performance of copyrighted works in a classroom setting without the need for permission or payment of any royalty fees.

Under the U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, Section 110), a movie can be shown in a classroom for educational purposes without obtaining a public performance license. However, to qualify for this exemption, certain conditions must be met. The movie must be shown as part of the instructional program, not for entertainment or reward. The teaching activities should be conducted by a non-profit education institution in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction.

The Role of Public Performance Licensing

When a school wishes to show a film outside of the direct teaching context, things get more complicated. This typically requires what is known as a public performance license. This license gives the holder the right to show a film in a public setting, such as a school auditorium or a community event. However, these licenses often come with a fee, which can be prohibitively expensive for many schools.

So, even though showing a movie at school may initially seem like a simple act, it can become a complex legal issue if the necessary precautions aren't taken. It's essential that schools understand their obligations under copyright law to avoid potential legal trouble.

What Happens If You Break The Rules?

Violating copyright laws by showing a movie without the necessary permissions or licenses can lead to serious consequences. Penalties can range from hefty fines to even potential jail time in the most severe cases. While it might seem unlikely that a school would face such harsh consequences, it is still a risk that should be taken seriously.

It's also worth noting that ignoring copyright laws sends a poor message to students. Schools should strive to teach respect for intellectual property rights, and this includes complying with copyright laws.

Best Practices For Schools

To avoid running afoul of copyright laws, schools should follow some best practices. First and foremost, if a film is being shown as part of the instructional program, ensure it falls under the educational exemption. If the film is being shown for entertainment or reward, check to see if the school already has a public performance license. Many schools and districts purchase annual licenses from film distributors that allow them to show movies publicly.

If a license is not already in place, consider reaching out to the copyright holder or a licensing agency to obtain the necessary permissions. While this may involve some cost, it is a small price to pay compared to the potential legal consequences of copyright infringement.


In conclusion, while it is legal to show a movie at school under certain conditions, it's crucial that schools understand the potential legal implications. By respecting copyright laws and obtaining the necessary permissions or licenses, schools can avoid legal trouble and teach students about the importance of respecting intellectual property rights.