Help Starting a Student Film Society

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  • Hello all,

    I have been tenaciously trying to start a student film society at my college. However, I have been told by a number of people on campus if I want to screen movies in a public place, I would need to pay for a license on a film-by-film basis. This would mean I could probably only screen one movie a month, and that is if the student government would even approve my organization. I want official approval, because I would be able to use auditoriums on campus for film screenings.
    Now I have read the copyright law, and from what I understand, a movie has to be part of a curriculum in order to be shown free of charge. So here is my first question: Is this interpretation correct?
    I also know that there are student film societies on other campus which regularly screen film and do not pay for the license. I contacted the Program Coordinator for one who told me the didn't think it was a problem as long as I wasn't charging and it was on campus. So my second question: Why does their college allow movie screenings in the manner I intend, and my college consider them copyright infringement? For reference, I attend Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, and the school I contacted was in New York.
    Finally, I was searching online and I encountered, which offers a public video screening license to colleges and societies in the U.K. Obviously, I am not eligible, but does anyone know of a U.S. equivalent that I could try and pursue for my college? I know that Allegheny uses an organization called Swank Motion Pictures, Inc. to acquire movie screening rights ( However, it is only on a movie-by-movie basis as far I can tell.

    I'm starting to feel kind of desperate right now, I actually emailed filmbank to see if they knew any U.S. equivalents--though there has been no response yet. If anyone on this site can help me, I would be incredibly grateful.
  • I'm sorry, I don't have a lot of great news... I don't think there really is a US equivalent of such a film rights society, unfortunately.

    So, as far as the showing a movie in an educational context, you've got a few options. There's showing it as part of a curriculum, like you mentioned, which can fall under an education-related exemption. That also has to be done in a face-to-face setting, and it doesn't apply to a digital version of the film. There's the digital option, which is also directly tied to curriculum in more narrow in scope. There's also fair use, which is probably what the other colleges you contacted are relying on, if they're actively considering the issue. The issue there is, that's going to be completely different from college to college. Your college might not be comfortable with that interpretation of fair use.

    Any other thoughts?
  • I think the "officialness" of the student film society would have an impact. Is it to be under to university's umbrella as an official student organization? Will you have a faculty sponsor? Will attendance be limited to members? Will there be discussion before and after? Those factors would all help a lot, since they can be interpreted as falling under the exemptions for education. I actually did something like this as a librarian many years ago -- set up an evening Shakespeare film society as a quasi-official college organization and showed a film a week, attending myself and leading the discussion. Never got in trouble, but a 500-person college in a rural area is pretty unlikely to attract the big guns.
  • Adding on to the excellent points made by COvalle and JanetCroft, my approach would be to use the "officialness" of the student film society to justify the Library acquiring the movies on DVD with public performance rights. Academic libraries often do consider, within the scope of their mission, support for important institutional activities outside of the classroom, and therefore can justify allocating precious collection dollars to supporting these programs and ensuring that they remain in compliance with copyright law.
  • Thank you for the replies.

    To clarify, each screening would begin with an introduction of the film and end with discussion. Only members would be allowed to attend. I have a meeting with the student organizer on Friday, and I am hoping I can convince her that this would fall under fair use. If I got official recognition the club would have a faculty adviser as well, which wouldn't hurt my cause. The only problem I foresee is that there won't be an instructor present at the screenings, and it seems like the term face-to-face means that there would have to be.

    However, the term face-to-face is only used section 110 of the copyright law and not in section 107 (fair use). I don't understand if I meet the criteria for one and not the other, which takes precedence, or if I need to meet both in order not infringe copyright. Can anyone clarify?
  • Fair use is a separate exception to copyright law from the performance exceptions in section 110. If you meet the criteria of either one of them, your performance is not an infringement. Fair use is intentionally vague and open-ended. It is meant to be flexible, but it is also inevitably rather uncertain.

    If your performance can be justified under the terms of 110(1) that is much more secure, although the terms "face to face teaching activity" are themselves less than definite. But fair use remains an option; a lot will depend on your institutions tolerance for risk.

    To return to your original question, there are licensing organizations in the U.S. that will sell you a license for campus performances that do not qualify for the teaching activities exception. One is the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation ( and another is called Swank Motion Pictures ( Other campuses that you asked may actually have a blanket license from one of these organizations that covers film societies; sometimes folks are told not to worry and simply do not realize that a license is in place.

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