RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Streaming, Rental and Umbrella Movie Licenses - 12/19/2019
What qualifies as a legally owned copy of a movie? I understand that the physical copy, when loane...
Posted: Thursday, December 19, 2019 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

What qualifies as a legally owned copy of a movie? I understand that the physical copy, when loaned is transferrable and can be covered with an Umbrella License from SWANK or other companies. I believe that streaming services do not qualify as an owned copy as they have licensing that does not work with the Umbrella License. What about movie rentals from iTunes? Does that licensing also exclude itself from the umbrella license? I guess my question is, does only a physical copy of the item work with the Umbrella License provided?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Schools, libraries, prisons, museums, student clubs, companies…from time to time, these places just want to hand out snacks, and let people watch a movie.

The problem is, the simple act of gathering people to watch a movie is governed by an intricate web of copyright law, and the legal filaments of that web change from place to place.

To help institutions navigate this variability, movie studios and agencies (including Swank, the agency mentioned in the question) offer suites of “licensing” options.  Swank’s website even features helpful[1] copyright guides to help customers assess their needs and obligations, so they can select the right license—including an array of broad permissions called an “umbrella license.”

Under an “umbrella license,” movies that the agency has the rights to may be shown by the licensee (under an array of qualifying circumstances).  And as the member writes, this can include showing movies from a borrowed physical copy (like a DVD), even if the copy isn’t supplied by the service.

How does that work?  Here’s an example:

Let’s say my daughter’s kindergarten teacher wants to show the class “My Neighbor Totoro.”[2]  The teacher stops at a local library to obtain a copy on DVD, which bears the warning “licensed for home viewing only.” 

Next, the teacher checks in with the school and confirms that the school is licensed to show “Totoro” under the school’s umbrella license.  My daughter’s class can now watch a masterpiece of Japanese animation, without fear of copyright infringement.

Now let’s switch the scenario up: the teacher wants to stream the movie from his iTunes.  The school still has that same umbrella license.  Can the teacher use his personal account to show the movie?

No.  Unless Apple has changed their “Terms of Use” (usually some version of “You agree that your use will be for personal, noncommercial purposes”[3]), the use would be in violation of the teacher’s license. 

That said, depending on how broad it is, the school could try and claim the “umbrella license” to get the school out from under a claim of direct infringement.[4]  But that could leave the teacher twisting in the wind!  - Not very good for union relations.

To switch the scenario one last time: let’s say the school has an “umbrella license” from an agency like Swank, and also subscribes to a streaming movie service (Amazon Prime).  Before a class views a movie via the Prime stream, the school would need to review both licenses to ensure the Prime license was consistent with, or trumped by, the “umbrella.”[5]

This issue here isn’t really about streaming v. hard copies.  It’s about licenses.  In our first scenario, the “generic” license on a hard copy is (potentially[6]) trumped by the “umbrella license” held by the school.  In the second scenario, the personal license held by the teacher could be violated when he uses his account for more than “personal” use—even though the school is licensed to show the movie.  And in the third scenario: well, it depends.

The key to this question is license alignment.  If an institution has a license to view a movie, and gets the copy it views from another source, there must be no contradictory provisions in the stack of licenses—or, the umbrella license must clearly trump the previous license.  This is true whether the institution is using a hard copy or a streaming copy, and regardless of who the physical copy belongs to. 

The member’s question alerts us to this complexity, and the member is right to approach this issue with caution. 

So.  What constitutes “a legally owned copy?”  I wish I had a simple and rock-solid answer, but these days, that can be a tough call.  Reading the fine print on licenses might not be fun,[7] but it is an essential part of answering this type of question, and it needs to be done on a case-by-case basis.  This is why careful planning during procurement, and attention to details when negotiating licenses and services, is critical.

Thanks for a question that pulls the focus to this issue.



[1] “Helpful” in the sense that they inform potential customers as to why they need Swank’s service!  But the “help” is based on reality.

[2] This is a fantasy example.  But they did show her “The Little Mermaid.”  Sigh.

[3] As seen on December 9, 2019 at https://www.apple.com/legal/internet-services/itunes/us/terms.html.  That said, each work can have its own terms, so always read carefully.

[4] But not, perhaps, “contributory infringement” (assisting in infringement by another).

[5] This answer is esoteric enough, so we won’t dive into the further implications of streaming movies under the TEACH Act…but commentary on that can be found in earlier answers.

[6] Always check you umbrella license!

[7] Okay, I’ll admit it: I find reading the fine print fun.

 

Tags: Copyright, Movies, Streaming, Swank Movie Licensing, Umbrella Licensing

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