by Eileen Korte | October 01, 2016

Members look to associations for guidance on a number of issues. Yet there is a perceived non-issue among many associations, one which is frequently misunderstood: copyright law, and specifically, how it applies when motion pictures and other audiovisual programs are shown during association functions.

When asked whether they show movies at events, many associations respond that they do not. That’s unlikely, isn’t it? Has a session presenter or conference speaker ever shown a scene from a memorable movie? If so, that might have been a copyright violation. Did your association, or the presenter using that scene, secure a public-performance license? Did anyone even think to ask? Or did your association assume that the liability fell solely on the speaker?

Understanding Copyright Infringement. Many associations are unaware that almost all motion-picture use requires a public performance license in accordance with Title 17 of U.S. Copyright Law. Copyrighted motion pictures and other audiovisual programs available for rental or purchase in any legal format, such as DVDs or other digital formats, whether streamed or downloaded, are intended for personal, private use only. This legal requirement applies equally to both for-profit and non-profit organizations, even if no admission fee is charged, the exhibition is not open to the general public, only a few seconds of a short scene are used, and the media has been legally purchased. Fines for noncompliance start at $750 for each inadvertent infringement and go as high as $150,000 for each egregious violation. And keep in mind, these figures do not include legal and court fees.

Some associations mistakenly assume that showing scenes from a movie qualifies for an exemption, falls under “fair use” or that copyright liability falls on the party pressing “play.” As a defense, “fair use” is determined by a court of law, which means that assuming an exemption applies may not be the best course of action. Most groups won’t want a situation to head that far.

But We Don’t Show Movies! While your association may not show movie scenes at its events, it is virtually impossible to ensure copyright compliance at all times because speakers, members or guests can unwittingly show a movie scene unaware of possible repercussions. That’s why association education on copyright compliance is essential as high event volume translates to high infringement risk. Even if your association requests that speakers clear copyrights in advance, when third parties fail to ensure compliance, the association carries risk and may face vicarious or contributory liability.

For many associations, the cost of an annual public-performance license will be less than the potential fines for copyright infringement or the hourly rate of the copyright lawyer confirming that a license was, indeed, required. An annual public-performance license provides blanket coverage for a variety of movie studios; once licensed, an unlimited number of movies, which have been released by affiliated studios, may be shown whole or in part. By securing a license, your association will gain the peace of mind that all association functions are in full compliance with the law. Licensing is a simple and affordable solution to a potentially expensive problem.

The Power of Visual Media. Once your association has secured a public-performance license, it can harness the power of visual media. Speakers have long recognized that including a short movie scene is an effective way to connect with the audience, and playing movies without sound during a special event is a simple way to create an ambient environment. Another great idea is showing movies at a child-care area during a conference, something that’s increasingly common.

Many industry associations and state societies of association executives (such as the Michigan Society of Association Executives) have already developed a relationship with a licensing agency to assist their members with copyright compliance and to offer special price discounts.

Being caught in violation of copyright law is not something any group wants to experience. Securing an annual public-performance license for the legal exhibition of motion pictures and other audiovisual programs is simple and affordable. And it sends the message to members, speakers and staff that your group respects the use of intellectual property. Thus prepared, your association can, without a doubt, leverage the magic of the movies.