Securing Movie Licensing for Public Screenings: What You Need to Know

Copyright and ownership laws specify provisions required when using intellectual properties like movies or films. If you want to use these materials, you are legally required to obtain an agreement from the property owner that provides you the rights of use. In this article, you will learn how to obtain a movie license, its limitations, and provisions. 

What is movie licensing?

Intellectual property owners have the right to dictate how their property is used. The reason for this is to protect their property, get fair compensation, quality control, controlling illegal replication, and so on. The law provides provisions to ensure that the above are enforced. 

A movie license is primarily required for public screening. In these public setups, it is assumed that most of the rights of the owner will be abused. Therefore, as the person screening the movie, you need to obtain an agreement through a third party. This agreement is a legal document and it can be used in case the copyrights have been abused.

Countries like the United States that have a large entertainment industry are quite strict on use of copyrighted material. However, most countries in the world that have functional legal justice systems put a lot of emphasis on this issue. For this article, we will reference the USA since it has the most robust copyright protection system.

Movie licenses are an example of a Public Performance License (PPL). Generally, a PPL is an umbrella term that gives rights to people like you who need to publicly show material that you do have ownership rights to. 

Understanding Public Performance License (PPL)  

Copyright law can be complicated at times. It has many elements and sometimes complex terms that are not comprehensible for the average person. However, there is no doubt that you have what it takes to understand it.

Public performance license is a category of legal authorization agreements provided by copyright owners or third-party agencies for the use of their material. PPLs cover a wide range of entertainment assets. A movie license is an example of a public performance license.

PPLs specify several elements in the agreement. They include;

  • Scope. This means what is allowed and disallowed according to the terms of the agreement.
  • Definitions. A public performance license defines terms that you are supposed to keep in mind as you obtain the license. For instance, for public movie screenings, it defines the bounds of public and what it entails.
  • Cost of the license. The cost of the PPL will vary depending on several factors. When obtaining the license, it will have specifics on this depending on your requirement and the intended use.
  • Enforcement clauses. Compliance with the agreement terms of the PPL needs to be enforced and guided by law. Therefore, there will be a clause that outlines conditions that satisfy as being compliant. It also states the consequences of failing to comply.
  • Limitations. While a PPL grants you the rights to use their work, there are limits to the ownership granted. In other words, the owner cannot provide full ownership unless you are buying the copyright.

The above are the basic elements that you will find in a PPL agreement. More or less elements will be added depending on the nature of the license and the provider. Also, there will be a legal section that stipulates all the legal acts that a PPL is supposed to have. Let us summarize the US Federal Copyright Act to understand what a copyright act entails.

The Federal Copyright Act (Title 17 of the US Code)

This United States act provides a framework that copyright lawyers can use to draft copyright laws for their clients. It also gives a framework of the usage of copyrighted materials such as films. Also, the act provides provisions for licensing and how it should be controlled. 

Several people get into trouble for publicly showing copyrighted material that they have purchased either knowingly or unknowingly. The Federal Copyright Act specifically states that purchasing copyrighted material does not grant you this right. 

The actual statement reads; 

“Neither the rental nor the purchase of a copy of a copyrighted work carries with it the right to publicly exhibit the work.”

This statement translates that you are only required to use the purchased material for private use and not for public use. This is where a public performance license comes in to remove the limitations of public display.

The statement in the act states;

“No additional license is required to privately view a movie or other copyrighted work with a few friends and family or in certain narrowly defined face-to-face teaching activities.”

The act continues to describe the bounds of private and public situations. In other words, it specifies what counts as either private or public. Provided that movie licenses are not needed for private events, this specification will help you recognize if you need it or not.

Factors that determine the need for PPL

Apart from the difference between private and public situations, the need of a PPL is influenced by several factors. These factors will help you understand what is needed of you to secure a license and the conditions that need to be specified. Here is a look at some of these factors.

Content ownership rights

There are two possibilities that you will encounter when planning a public screening. On one hand, you will be planning to show a movie that is owned by someone else. In this case, you will have purchased the movie. Also, you could be the rightful owner with copyright protection. This means you either produced or bought the copyright from the producer.

In the first scenario, you will still need to approach the copyright owner to buy a public performance license to screen the movie in public. However, in some instances, you do not need a public performance license if you have full ownership rights to the movie.

Content ownership rights are essential in the entertainment industry. They help you avoid piracy and infringement which are considered unlawful.

Exclusive rights

Copyright law grants IP owners what is known as exclusive rights. This means that the owner has the full jurisdiction to do whatever they please with the material. Particularly, most exclusive rights fall under economic rights.

In the US Code for copyright, the law gives copyright owners the rights to publication, performance, reproduction, adaptation, and display of their material. This means that they control almost every aspect of their work after it has been produced. 

When obtaining a movie license for public screening, you need to check which of these rights are transferred to you via the PPL agreement. For instance, some licenses will only limit you to performance while others could allow for adaptation. Doing something that is not allowed in the agreement will be considered a breach.

Licensing agreement

The licensing agreement has several terms that are signed off by the copyright owner or the third party agent. It also provides guidelines or conditions under which the agreement is considered applicable.

A good licensing agreement should be straightforward. Remember that you are spending money on this product. As such, it should not have confusing clauses or complicated terms. If you have the resources, you can involve a layer to help you translate the agreement terms.


As the US copyright act states, the PPL exempts certain circumstances and does not categorize them as public gatherings. In these gatherings, you are not required to obtain a license, and if you do, it will be relatively cheaper compared to a standard PPL.

While private environments are exempted, they also have contextual limitations. This means that there are actions you are not allowed. They could include sound distance, recording and sharing material, among other things. Therefore, always make sure you understand the contents of the movie licensing agreement to avoid breaking the law.

Fair use

Most copyright acts have a fair use policy. This policy allows for the use of copyrighted material without the need for a PPL. The law classifies such use cases as transformative agendas. 

Some use cases that can be considered transformative include;

  • Education
  • Commentary
  • Criticism 
  • News

For the most parts, these situations are mostly meant for non-profit and therefore the law exempts them from requiring a license. The copyright owner is aware of these situations. Therefore, they cannot sue you for infringing on any of their rights.

Types of Public Performance License 

PPLs come in two general categories. Each category has particular agreements and conditions which it applies. They also vary in terms of duration, fees, and other factors. There is the umbrella license and single event license.

Umbrella License  

This type of PPL allows you to show any type of copyrighted content without having to worry about copyright laws. It is what most broadcasting companies such as mainstream media companies use for showing content.

The umbrella license has its benefits and restrictions. While you are allowed to publicly screen content for thousands of people, you are prohibited from charging them. In other words, you cannot sell tickets to show a movie publicly with an umbrella license. Again, these conditions are applicable to the United States and they might vary from region to the other.

It is now upon you to evaluate your needs to decide if this type of PPL is right for you. If your objective is to make revenue from screening movies, it might not be for you.

Single event license  

This is the most common movie license for people who rarely organize events. It allows you to obtain a license for a specific event. This means it is limited in use for that event only and that you will need to get a new license for another event.

This type of PPL is especially great if it is your first time planning a public movie screening. It is much cheaper than the umbrella license and it gives you permission to charge for screenings. Also, you can negotiate the terms of the agreement with the copyright owner. Single event license is applicable to many regions worldwide.

Requirements for getting a Public Performance License 

In the entertainment industry, there is something called royalties. Essentially, royalties are proceeds that accrue when patented or copyrighted material is used for profit. In other words, when you use copyrighted material for financial gains, you are expected to pay the copyright owner a percentage of your earnings.

Public performance licenses exist primarily to control this and ensure that the copyright owner is compensated accordingly. To do this, the PPL guides the purchaser on the extent to which they can use the material. Guidelines for using a PPL include;

  • Specified audience size. When signing up for a PPL, you will have to specify the number of people that will attend the movie screening. This is a factor that determines the cost of the license too.
  • Date and time. You have to specify the accurate date and time that you intend to set up the screening. Failure to do so on the specific date and time might render the license invalid and non-binding. 
  • Specific use case. What are your intentions for the screening? Is it just entertainment or something else? You will need to answer these questions so that the license provider can determine whether you need a commercial or noncommercial license. The two have different fee structure and conditions.
  • Restrictions and limitations. When acquiring a PPL, you will need to understand the restrictions that come with the PPL. For example, some movies are geographically restricted to certain regions. This means you cannot obtain a PPL to screen these movies in some regions.

These requirements are partly influenced by the copyright owner but largely controlled by the copyright act. The exclusive rights we mentioned earlier gives the copyright owner the liberty to dictate how their material will be used. Similarly, the law has guidelines for use in respect to consumer protection and other factors.

Most of these factors will also influence the cost of the license. For instance, the copyright owner can put a price tag for their work. The copyright law enforcement agencies can also draft a framework for these prices. 

Cost of the Public Performance License

In most cases, there is not a definitive or standalone PPL fee. This cost will vary heavily and will be influenced by a lot of factors. You might find some averages or minimum amounts but that will just be it. If you want a more accurate fee, you will have to specify several aspects in order to get a custom fee. Let us look at some of the factors that influence the cost of a PPL.

The size of the crowd

This is the main factor that determines the cost of the PPL. In public settings, you can have as little or as many people. You can have a definitive figure, or an estimation. This will be based on the venue or admittance plan. To clarify, if you are screening in an open field where anyone is welcome, it would be difficult to gauge the attendees. On the other hand, a closed public gathering where a ticket is required for entry will have a definitive crowd size.

Some licenses might not charge you based on the audience size. In cases where they do, the costs will be in tiers. Automatically, the larger the crowd, the higher the fees. You can also check whether the costs are negotiable.


Location can refer to a lot of things. On one hand, it could mean the type of venue where you intend to screen the movie. Also, the location could also mean the geographic location where the movie will be set.

Each condition here will influence the cost differently. For instance, a venue within a community would have a lower cost than a commercial venue like a stadium. These considerations are made to account for disparities. Additionally, getting a license in a less economical region would be generally cheaper than for an urban environment. 

License provider

The cost of the license will also vary depending on the licensee. You will rarely purchase the license directly from a copyright owner. In case you buy directly from the studio or owner, you will be charged less. It is the same as buying goods directly from the manufacturer.

There are third-party agencies that are entrusted by law to provide these licenses. These license providers have different operational standards. As such, these standards can influence the cost of the PPL. For instance, they might raise the cost of the PPL as a sale commission or to cover their operational costs.

Special cases

The cost of a PPL can come down to zero if certain conditions are met. The exemptions policy allows transformative use cases to obtain the PPL for free. Therefore, you would not be expected to pay a dime for a license. 

Displayed film

The cost of a PPL will also vary depending on the movie being displayed. Obviously, there are movies that are more valuable than others. This depends on production budget, ownership, and so on. These movies will cost more to get a license for public performance.

It is always good to liaise with the copyright owners or representatives about most of these factors to ensure that you get what you pay for. It will also help you plan your finances beforehand to make informed decisions.

Situations where a PPL is required 

The definition of public places is quite broad. What might seem as public in one instance might be considered private in another. Therefore, it is essential to specifically outline the conditions that satisfy as public.

According to the Federal Copyrights Act (USA), the law identifies situations and venues as public areas in relation to PPL licenses. 

Some of the areas considered public by the Act include;

  • Recreation centers 
  • Churches 
  • Parks 
  • Libraries 
  • Colleges and universities
  • Elementary schools 
  • Bus companies
  • Camps  
  • Hospitals  
  • Resorts 
  • Prisons 

Still, the list is not comprehensive. The license provider will assess your chosen location and advise if it qualifies as public or private. You might also find that some of these venues are exempted by some copyright agreements. Therefore, it is always advisable to liaise with the copyright owner or licensing agency before buying a movie license.

Situations where a PPL is NOT required

Generally, private venues or settings do not require a PPL to show movies. The purchase or streaming cost you incur covers the rights to use the content for personal needs. This is because the license is required to ensure that the copyright owner gains from the license buyer if they benefit from the public screening. 

Still referencing the US Federal Copyrights act, there are situations that can be considered private while others cannot. For the most part, small gatherings are considered private and hence no license is required. It includes family and friends and closed events.

Movie Screening PPL providers

In the United States, there are two main organizations that sell movie licenses on behalf of the copyright owners. For general PPLs, licenses are provided by BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC. For this article, we are focused on movie screening licenses.

Swank Motion Pictures  

This company has been providing movie licensing services since 1937. They are reputable and known across the United States. Swank Motion Pictures distributes movie licenses for major production studios in the West. It has teamed up and acted as a representative to provide PPL for these studios.

Swank provides licenses for major public markets. They include schools, museums, public libraries, restaurants, campgrounds — just to name a few. Visit Swank Motion Pictures website for more information and how to get in touch.

The Criterion Collection

This company is simply known as Criterion. It takes a niche approach for licensing the public screening of classic films and tv shows. The company also does restoration, letterboxing, and content distribution. Their target audience is for people looking to invoke nostalgia with their content. Visit the Criterion Collection website to learn more.

What to use for public movie screening

Showing a movie to a large audience will automatically require a large display. The display needs to have several features that can support viewing from for large audiences. Among these features include high brightness, high resolution, wide viewing angles, and distance, and color accuracy. 

LED displays contain most of the above features. The good thing is that they are expendable since they come in modules that can be assembled to create a large display. Let us learn more about these screens.

Mobile LED screens 

These types of displays can be fitted in all forms of moving or mobile vessels. That is where they derive their name. Mobility is important since it means that you are not restricted to a specific geographic location. 

Mobile LED screens are durable to sustain constant movement on the road. They are reinforced with ingress protection, protective covers, and other features to ensure that they are durable and reliable in all outdoor applications. These are the reasons why mobile LED screens are applicable for public movie screening.

LED screen rentals

Large LED screens are quite expensive for people that do not have a lot of commercial uses or the budget for them. This issue is solved by rental services that provide those in need with LED screens rental services.

These screens have some of the best features you can desire in a display, making them ideal for public movie screening. The individual modules can be assembled to create one large display that is impressive to see. You will find rental LED screens in all sorts of events, including public movie screenings.


Obtaining a movie license for public screening is quite straightforward. All that is required is to be familiar with the copyright laws in your region and their applicability. Learn the conditions, fees, provisions, limitations, and underlying factors related to PPL for movie screening. This article has provided a general overview to help you get started.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Here are answers to some of the questions we might not have directly answered in the contents of this article. For more detailed answers, refer to the copyright act in your region.

What happens if I don’t get a license? 

For the United States, the Federal Act states that failure to obtain a license where conditions are met is a federal crime with a penalty of 5 years in jail and/or $250,000 in fine. Check your local copyright act for specific repercussions.

Can I transfer the movie license? 

No you are not permitted to transfer the license to another party, location, date, or otherwise. The license agreement is usually very clear about these positions and failure to follow them might result in copyright abuse.

Do I need a license if I am not charging the crowd?

Yes you still need a license regardless of whether you are charging the viewers. The copyright act indicates that as long as the screening is considered public, a license is a must-have. It does not matter whether you are collecting revenue from the screening.

Where do I purchase a public performance license?

If you are in the US, you can purchase a PPL from Swank Motion Picture or The Criterion Collection. Alternatively, you can acquire the license from the copyright owner if you can. Each region has a body that is legally protected and permitted to sell these licenses.

Do I need a license if I own the movie?

Generally, if you own the movie, you have the exclusive rights which provides you with liberty to publicly show the movie. Therefore, unless otherwise, you would not require to obtain a license to screen your own movie in public.

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