How to Avoid a Copyright Violation at Christian Movie Night – Jay Matheny

Jay Matheny, Attorney, Lawyer, Paducah, KY Jackie M. “Jay” Matheny, Jr.
Attorney at Law
Denton Law Firm, PLLC
555 Jefferson Street
Suite 301
Paducah, KY  42001
Phone:  270-450-8253

Copyright Infringement’s Not Dead:

How to Avoid a Copyright Violation at Christian Movie Night

Over the course of the last decade, Christian-themed movies like “Facing the Giants,” “Fireproof,” “God’s Not Dead,” and “War Room” have experienced monumental commercial success, the likes of which had never previously been seen with Christian-themed movies. Thus, it is no wonder that churches, Christian schools, and other Christian organizations have increasingly sought to host movie nights during which these Christian-themed movies will be shown. And, during many of these Christian movie nights, the organizers will simply set up a DVD player and show their personal copy of the movie to the crowd on hand. However, there is one glaring problem with this setup: it may constitute a copyright violation under federal law.

As an initial matter, any time that a copyrighted work is shown or displayed outside of the home, intellectual property rights must be taken into consideration. However, there are some well-recognized exemptions to copyright law which may be applicable to this particular fact situation, i.e. showing a personal copy of a movie for something other than pure entertainment purposes.

The first potentially applicable exemption to copyright protection is known as the Classroom Use Exemption (which is codified at 17 U.S.C. § 110(1)). It provides that a copyrighted work may be displayed by instructors in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom, or in a similar place of instruction, as long as the work is legally made. See 17 U.S.C. § 110(1). This exemption would potentially allow a church (or some other similarly situated organization) to show a personal, purchased copy of a Christian movie as long as some type of face-to-face instruction accompanies the showing. In other words, as long as the entity showing the movie offers some type of accompanying instruction on a topic related to the movie (i.e. the Biblical principles contained therein, the lessons taught by the movie, etc.), then the movie could be shown without the fear of legal repercussion.

The second potentially applicable exemption to copyright protection is called the Religious Service Exemption. It allows the display of a copyrighted work in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly. See 17 U.S.C. § 110(3). Thus, if the movie is shown during the course of a “service” at your church, there would be no copyright violation under federal law. In fact, under this exemption, a “service” could consist of simply showing a Christian-themed movie in lieu of preaching and music. But, there would be less of a chance of copyright infringement if prayer and/or the reading of Biblical passages were added to the showing of the movie. The key here would be to ensure that the “service” is not just a pretext for showing the movie but is, instead, part of a legitimate worship service.

The final potentially applicable exemption to copyright protection is called the Fair Use Doctrine. The Fair Use Doctrine is one of the most recognized copyright exemptions under federal law and allows certain uses of copyright protected material without first obtaining permission from the copyright holder. It is intended to serve the public good by allowing use of copyright protected materials for comedy, parody, news reporting, research and education. However, it is important to note that not every use of copyrighted material in an academic or educational setting is automatically considered a fair use. The following factors must be considered and weighed to determine whether fair use applies:

  • What is the character or purpose of the use?  If the use is for a nonprofit educational use as opposed to a commercial purpose, it is more likely to be considered fair use.
  • What is the nature of the work to be used?  If it is a fact based work developed for research or scholarly use as opposed to a creative work created for commercial purposes, it is more likely to be considered fair use.
  • How much of the work will be used?  The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole must be considered. This refers to the amount, length, and duration of the use. The smaller the amount used, the more likely it favors fair use.
  • What effect would the use have on the market for or the value of the copyrighted work?  In order to favor fair use, the use should have little or no effect on the creator’s ability to make money from the work.

A thoughtful analysis of these factors in relation to the desired use is needed in order to make a “good faith” determination of fair use because there are significant monetary penalties that can be imposed for copyright infringement. However, these penalties may be reduced in cases of nonprofit educational use if it can be established that an evaluation of these four factors resulted in a reasonable belief that the use of the work was fair.

On final note, if a church (or other similar organization) wishes to “err on the side of caution” and avoid any potential copyright pitfalls altogether, many commercial film production companies allow for the purchase of limited use licenses which would legally allow for the congregational showing of a movie for a nominal fee (usually between $99.00 and $200.00, depending on the size of the congregation). These licenses can be purchased online, and, once the fee is paid, the license is issued electronically. Because these licenses grant permission to show a film, they provide the ultimate protection against potential copyright infringement.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Moreover, this information provided herein is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship, and receipt of the information provided herein does not create an attorney-client relationship.