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Copyright misconceptions about showing movies at youth group

Copyright FAQs on showing movies at youth groupThis guest post is contributed by Chris Szulwach. We all love movie nights with the youth group, but most of us are unaware of the legal issues surrounding such events. Chris is a youth pastor who has done a lot of research in this area, including consultation with copyright lawyers and experts. The following is a summary of his research.

Ok, raise your hand if you’ve ever actually read that little FBI warning at the beginning of a movie! Well, lucky (and unlucky) for us that little warning has absolutely nothing to do with showing a movie in a youth ministry setting.

Over my years in youth ministry I have moved through the following progression when it comes to the issue of movies and copyrights.

  • intentional ignorance on the matter of copyright law
  • learning a little about it and then not really caring too much
  • taking the copyright issue pretty seriously

About 7 or 8 years ago, when everyone was rocking Napster (the illegal predecessor to napster.com) I began to do some research on the reasons why breaking the music copyright was so bad. Hopefully, all of us are now on board with that issue by now, but that issue got me thinking about other areas of copyright law.

I’ve realized that as a representative of Christ in my community and as a model for my church, I need to “play by the rules” in order to not only live a “life that is above reproach,” but simply so I’m not stealing from others.

On to talking about movies, though…

Common Misconceptions

1. The FBI warning says that I can’t charge money for people to watch the movie so my event is ok.
The FBI warning actually pertains to an individual showing a movie within their home.

2. As long I am using the movie as a church event I am within the copyright laws.
This is a false statement because the only instance in which a movie may be screened, outside of a home, without a license, is in a non-profit educational setting with “face-to-face instruction.”

3. If I make a lesson out of the movie I want to show I will be within the copyright laws.
A non-profit educational setting has previously been specifically defined as a non-profit academic institution. The main activity of a church is not academics.

4. My church has the CVLI license, so we can show movies at any church event that we do.
This license only pertains to a church showing movies “in its facility(ies.)” This means that if you have a current CVLI license, you may show any legally obtained movie in your church property. (See points 1 and 4 on this page at CVLI.com.)

Also, the CVLI license only covers those movies “produced and/or distributed by CVLI affiliated motion picture companies only,” according to point 6. But you may be able to contact the motion picture company and get written permission to show the movie. As the copyright holder, if it is the copyright holder, it can waive its rights and grant a church or ministry permission to show the movie. If you want to do this, do it well in advance, the process is s l o w.

5. I can throw up a sheet, a PA system, and a projector to show the movie in the back yard of the church because I am within the church property.
The CVLI license specifically says that movies can be screened in its facilities. Upon speaking to a representative at CVLI, I pressed for clarification of “in facilities.” The answer that I got was that you would most likely be within the spirit of the agreement if the movie was screened outdoors only if in a secluded area where there was no chance that someone from the general public would see or hear any portion of the movie that was being screened.

6. Since I’m not charging a fee, I am showing the movie inside of my church, and I have the CVLI license, I can advertise my event in any fashion that I want.
In case you missed reading point 4 of the CVLI terms, “No specific titles, or any characters from such titles, or producers’ names will be advertised or publicized to the general public unless authorized by certain producers.”

Much more info on this topic can be found at:

So what should you do!?

  • Make sure that your church has a current CVLI license.
  • Only show movies at a youth ministry event within your church or at a camp location that has its own license since the license is restricted to a physical location.
  • Invite a few students over to your house, where you show a movie inside, with out any advertising of any sort through your church.

It is possible to still do a movie event for the public, you’ll need to procure a license from mplc.org but make sure you follow their guidelines.

I hope this helps clear up some of the movie copyright confusion. Of course, there are a ton of other areas that I could have addressed, but I’m not a copyright lawyer, I’m a youth pastor. So, I am not giving you any legal advice on this matter, just a few tips and pointers. If you have questions about your situation it would be best to chat with your church’s attorney or speak directly with an attorney who specializes in copyright law since this is a very in depth area of law (which you noticed if you checked out copyright.gov).

———————————————————————-
Chris SzulwachChris Szulwach is a youth pastor in Liverpool, NY. Chris has 11 years experience as a volunteer, para-church staff, and as a pastor.
Blog: CoffeeWithChris.com | YouthMinBlog.com
Twitter: twitter.com/CoffeeWithChris


Posted on May 27, 2009

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  • This helps…seriously. I've been cautious in not allowing movies to be shown in our church in the past…only to have staff guys get mad at me for it, and I mean seriously upset. Churches are really bad about this. But the word needs to get out, 'cuz it makes us look bad, and its wrong. Thanks for the info.

    • No prob! We do need to be cautious, not only because of how it makes us look, but isn't it an integrity issue?

      Some in the church think that we can do whatever we want because of "religious freedom" but we are also called to submit to the authorities the God has placed in our lives and if those authorities are not directly against God then we need to submit.

      • Agreed. It's totally an integrity issue. (Hence, my comment, "Its wrong.") In my experience the people who show movies illegally, and the ones who've gotten mad at me for telling them its illegal, they often are people of integrity. They're just ignorant about this stuff. They fall very nicely into your "common misconceptions" category. I wish I could take your post here, put Billy Graham's name on it, and send it to every copyright-ignorant (and it's okay to fall into this category), well-meaning minister in America. I bet they'd wake up and listen then! Again, though, thanks for the post.

  • PastorE

    So, here's a stretch. What if we have a parsonage. That's church property so will the CVLI cover that?

    • That's a good question! Some would say that the CVLI is only applicable to the physical address of the organization listed on the CVLI application, others would say that since the license says "facility(ies)" of the organization, any facility would be covered, including a camp or secondary campus of the church that is owned by the church. I can't give you a good answer either way since I'm not your lawyer. You'd be best served by either talking this through with your church's lawyer or contacting CVLI.

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  • andrew

    "2. As long I am using the movie as a church event I am within the copyright laws.
    This is a false statement because the only instance in which a movie may be screened, outside of a home, without a license, is in a non-profit educational setting with “face-to-face instruction.”

    3. If I make a lesson out of the movie I want to show I will be within the copyright laws.
    A non-profit educational setting has previously been specifically defined as a non-profit academic institution. The main activity of a church is not academics."

    From a church-state law perspective, these two assertions seem to be false. Here's my reasoning: Most churches, if they are incorporated, are 501(c)3 organizations. Many, many other institutions fall into this category including the following: churches, mosques, temples, educational institutions, charitable organizations, sports organizations, and abuse prevention organizations (among many, many others).

    Given that so many other organizations fall into the same nonprofit category is would appear that it does not matter if the "main activity" of the church is not "academics." The federal government and most state governments recognize churches as nonprofit institutions and make no distinction whatsoever between whether the institution is "academic" or not because no such distinction exists in nonprofit law.

    • You'd think the government would make things simple, right?
      Certainly not in the case of the copyright laws…

      The big issue is that we really are not dealing with non-profit law here, we are dealing with copyright law so definitions may not be transferable.

      The copyright law actually spells out that it must be a non-profit academic institution in order to make the distinction among all 501(c)(3) organizations and brings up even the specific point (as an example) that a preschool must carry a license or gain specific permission to show a movie, even for educational purposes.

      Isn't it fun to have such clearly defined laws that are so easy to live by? (Sense the sarcasm there!)

  • Andrew

    Ah geez! Well, it's a good thing the CVLI exists!

    Thanks for your wisdom and expertise!

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