The Rights Stuff


At a recent conference on higher-education fundraising, a speaker showed a clip from “The Simpsons.” In the video, Homer attends an alumni-relations event at Springfield University (yes, somehow Homer graduated college). An aggressive university fundraiser — noting that a 5–7 football season doesn’t come cheap — seals the exits and collects cash and jewelry from intimidated alumni, accompanied by Professor Rocko and Chancellor Knuckles.

The audience laughed at the clip, which reinforced the speaker’s point about fundraisers’ reputations. But while the video was clearly effective, was showing it in public legal? The speaker almost certainly hadn’t obtained licensing rights to use it, nor had the association that organized the conference.

Eileen Korte

“We see this kind of use at a lot of meetings,” said Eileen Korte, vice president of the licensing division for the Los Angeles–based Motion Picture Licensing Corporation (MPLC), which represents Hollywood studios and more than a thousand independent producers. “It may be just a scene and not the entire work, but it still requires a license.”

Indeed, while downloading clips from the internet has never been easier, downloading them without authorization is piracy. To help you understand some of the do’s and don’ts, Convene talked to Korte about the legalities of licensing.

Do we really need a license to show video at a conference?

Yes. Movies and TV show are intended for personal, private use. And that’s true whether you stream a clip, download it, or hit “play” on a DVD player. “You need public-performance rights, which are not included with that content when you buy it, rent it, or borrow it,” said Korte. “So if you wanted to show ‘Barney and Friends’ at a child-care center, you would need permission to do so. If you wanted to show a scene from ‘The Social Network’ at a corporate training event, you would need a license to do so.” The same is true for meeting planners or speakers who show video at conferences.

What is copyright law and how does it apply to meetings?

The U.S. Copyright Act states that:

  • Only the copyright owner holds the exclusive right “to perform the copyrighted work publicly.”
  • Renting or buying a movie or TV show does not give you the right to show it in public.
  • For-profit and nonprofit organizations must secure a license to show films, regardless of whether they charge an admission fee.
  • Nonprofit educational institutions can show a film without a license for “face-to-face teaching activities” — but all other unlicensed public performances are illegal.

Our association is a nonprofit educational institution. Does that mean we don’t need a license?

Sorry — it doesn’t work that way. The Copyright Act’s educational exemption applies to full-time accredited nonprofit educational institutions. “That would be something like a university,” Korte said. “Sometimes trade associations think this applies to them, but it does not.”

Aren’t we protected by fair use?

Under U.S. copyright law, the fair-use provision allows the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances, including criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Four factors are used to evaluate fair use:

  • The purpose of the use, including whether it’s for commercial or nonprofit uses.
  • The nature of the work (using a creative artistic work, such as a movie or song, is less likely to be considered fair use than a factual work, like a technical article or news item).
  • How much of the work was used (courts have ruled widely on this, so don’t think you’re safe by showing a 20-second clip).
  • How much the unlicensed use affects the market for the copyright owner’s work.

Here’s a key point about fair use: It’s a defense that you present in court once you’re sued, not a justification to show unlicensed video during an event. “People love to use the term ‘fair use,’” Korte said, “but there is no way to say before the event that something is or isn’t fair use.”

How does our organization obtain a license?

You can contact the rights holder directly — such as 20th Century Fox for that “Simpsons” — but most rights holders work with the MPLC to handle those requests. That also benefits the meeting planner, according to Korte, because you’re dealing with one source for requests rather than multiple companies.

How expensive is the licensing fee?

The MPLC offers a variety of license options, from coverage for a single event to an entire year. The prices are based on audience size; the minimum fee for a single event is $250. You could also obtain a license that covers an entire multi-day conference; the minimum fee for that is also $250. To cover licensing for one year, the minimum is $375 annually. “The fees can be higher based on audience or membership size, but our objective is to make it reasonable,” Korte said. “And if you purchase an annual license for your conference, you don’t have to worry about policing your speakers or checking your sessions.”

Shouldn’t entertainment companies be happy that we’re promoting their products?

Korte hears that argument a lot. “People say, ‘Well, who am I hurting?,’ or ‘They should be paying me to play their movies,’” she said. “They don’t view intellectual property as theft.” But when you ask people how they’d feel if someone used their intellectual property illegally, or without compensation, they often see the logic behind the law.

Let’s be real — no one is really going to report us for using unlicensed video, right?

Don’t be so sure. “Believe it or not, we do receive calls and letters from people who let us know about copyright violations,” Korte said. “We’ve had bars call us about another bar showing movies. We’ve had homeowner associations call us about movies shown in their clubhouse. So it’s not uncommon.” And if that happens, a media company could contact your organization and demand payment for unlicensed use of its intellectual property.

What’s the penalty for showing copyright-protected video without a license?

Unlicensed public performances are federal crimes and can be subject to a $150,000 fine and other penalties, according to the MPLC. However, Korte said the MPLC prefers to initially give violators the benefit of the doubt, since most people don’t deliberately infringe on copyrights. Usually they’re just unaware it’s an issue. “Once people understand,” Korte said, “they’re inclined to do the right thing.”

Isn’t the speaker rather than the meeting organizer liable for showing a copyright-protected video?

That’s a frequent misconception. “The meeting planner often thinks that the liability only falls on the person who’s presses ‘play,’” Korte said. “They say, ‘Well, we didn’t show the movie. The speaker did, so the speaker should’ve bought the license. Or the hotel should have had the license.’” But a hotel or convention center isn’t obligated to purchase a license covering blanket use of video. They’re not the ones showing it. Your conference is. And that means your organization is responsible. “When there’s any unauthorized use and it’s your event,” Korte said, “you’re opening yourself up to liability.” D’oh!

Music Licensing 101 

Music follows the same copyright rules as movies, so before you blast classic rock or smooth jazz at your opening session, you’ll need to obtain licensing approval. Three main companies provide music licensing in the United States: ASCAP (ascap.com), SESAC (sesac.com), and BMI (bmi.com).