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Copyright Rules for Showing Films in Higher Education: Showing Films in Class


Fair Use (17 U.S.C. § 107) allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder. Under fair use, the certain uses permitted include, but are not limited to, criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research. All educational uses, however, are not considered fair use. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use, four factors need to be considered:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

While many uses for educational purposes are fair, not all are. You need to evaluate your use each time you are reproducing copyrighted material. More Information on Fair Use

Face-to-Face Teaching Exemption:

  • Copyright law provides an exemption for instructors to perform or display copyrighted materials during face-to-face teaching activities.
  • It is permissible to show a full-length motion picture in an in-person class as part of classroom learning (not for entertainment purposes)
  • This exemption does not apply to interactions that are not in-person, including distance learning interactions.

Copyrighted movies may ONLY be shown without permission in a college or university setting if these criteria are met:

  • A teacher or instructor is present, engaged in face-to-face teaching activities.
  • The institution must be an accredited, nonprofit educational institution.
  • The showing takes place in a classroom setting with only enrolled students attending.
  • The film is used as an essential part of the core, required curriculum being taught, not as entertainment.
  • The recording being used is a legitimate copy, not taped from a legitimate copy or taped from TV.


Using Netflix, Amazon, Hulu... Videos in Class:

  • Showing streaming content from a private subscription account in an in-person class does not violate U.S. Copyright, BUT
  • It DOES violate the End User License Agreement which you agree to when you create the account.
  • Most subscription streaming services include a requirement that the account is “only for your personal, non-commercial use.”
  • License agreements overrule copyright exemptions.
  • At this time, educational licenses for these particular subscription services are not available.
  • Netflix does allow One-Time Educational Screenings of some Netflix original documentaries.

Can I use a digital copy of a movie purchased from Amazon in an in-person class?

Unfortunately, no. You are not allowed to play a digital movie that you buy from Amazon to a class, locally or remotely. Digital videos, even if purchased, are for "personal, non-commercial, private use." This is an instance where it would not be violating copyright, but the license you agree to when creating an Amazon account is for personal use only, so it would be violating Amazon Prime Video Terms of Use:

“4h. Limited License to Digital Content. Subject to payment of any charges to rent, purchase, or access Digital Content, and your compliance with all terms of this Agreement, Amazon grants you a non-exclusive, non-transferable, non-sublicensable, limited license, during the applicable Viewing Period, to access and view the Digital Content in accordance with the Usage Rules, for personal, non-commercial, private use.”


The copyright rules for showing films in online classes are different than those applying to in-person teaching activities.

The TEACH Act:

  • Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act was enacted by Congress in 2002.
  • This amended section 110 of the Federal Copyright Act enables educators to use copyrighted materials for distance education with certain restrictions.
  • It allows the performance of a reasonable and limited portion of films in an online classroom, such as clips or portions of a work.
  • An entire film rarely constitutes a reasonable and limited portion.

Strategies for avoiding copyright infringement when showing films in an online class:

  • Use only the portion necessary to support the curriculum.
  • If it is necessary to show the entire work, obtain permission from the copyright holder.
  • Link to a video if possible, rather than making an electronic copy available to students.
  • Include pauses for discussion during the film, rather than only at the conclusion.
  • Provide secure, password-protected access to registered students only (i.e., Blackboard).
  • Don’t record the session.
  • Provide appropriate attribution.
  • Make the film available for a limited amount of time only.
  • The content should not be downloadable or recordable.


Using YouTube videos in Online Classes:

  • The use of YouTube videos in non-profit educational setting is common.
  • Rights holders have not sued educational institutions for this use.
  • YouTube’s Terms of Service allows you to "show YouTube videos through the embeddable YouTube player."
  • Vimeo has similar terms of service.
  • BE CAREFUL: Many videos are uploaded without the owner’s permission and can put you at risk of copyright infringement if you share the content.
  • Best practice is to use only videos only from official channels where you know the uploader is the copyright owner.