Legal to Play Copyrighted Movies in Public School?



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Question:

I am a teacher, and I want to show a movie to my biology class to teach them about surviving in the wilderness.  Can I just play the movie, if I bring in my own copy that I already paid for?

Answer:

The Copyright Act of 1976, which governs copyright law in the United States, indicates that most uses of a purely educational nature in a classroom would be permissible.  There is not a specific exception for educational use—rather, the provision of the Copyright Act creating a “fair use” exception mentions classroom activities as an example of a use that will likely be fair.  However, the Act also states that four factors should be balanced to decide each situation on its own factual merits.

Section 107 of the Act states the use of a copyrighted work “for purposes such as . . . teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use) . . . is not an infringement of copyright.”  While in most cases this example may be sufficient to allow a teacher to use a copyright movie as part of an educational curriculum in a classroom, the wording of the Act indicates that uses for teaching are allowed because of the balance of the four factors—which then indicates that there may be situations where even use in a classroom would not fall under fair use.  It is worth noting that educational use outside of a classroom (such as posting materials on the internet) is less likely to be considered fair use, but may still qualify.

While classroom uses of copyrighted materials that do not have a valid fair use defense to infringement are rare, they do likely exist (for example, showing a movie for non-educational purposes or broadcasting students performing a play in their classroom on a public television channel may not be fair use).  If there is any doubt, you should speak to an intellectual property attorney before putting yourself and your school district at risk for a lawsuit.

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