Showing Movies at Church: Do I Need a License?

Dec 17, 2016

“When you buy or rent a movie, it is for personal use – meaning you can show it at home with family and friends. When you show movies at church, it constitutes a public performance…” 


Showing Movies at Church
There are wonderful reasons to show movies at church – education, fellowship, youth group, community events, etc. But what are the copyright implications? Many pastors and church leaders assume that churches are somehow exempt from copyright issues when it comes to showing films. Unfortunately this is not true. The rules are clear: when you buy or rent a movie, it is for personal use – meaning you can show it at home with family and friends. When you show a movie outside of your home, it constitutes a public performance. And for a public performance, you need to obtain a license.

As Christian educator Lisa Brown explains, “You cannot show a movie at church without a site license. Even though you are a non-profit, even though you are not charging, even though the movie is being used for instructional purposes, you are not legally permitted to do so without a site license. That FBI warning at the start of every movie expresses that movies are for personal viewing.” (The Best VBS Workbook Ever! New York: Church Publishing, 2017)

What about Fair Use and Educational Use?
US Copyright Law includes a section (107) on “fair use,” which allows the use of copyrighted material without permission or license, in certain circumstances. There is a terrific website for fair use, hosted by the University of Minnesota. As the site explains, “Purposes that favor fair use include education, scholarship, research, and news reporting, as well as criticism and commentary more generally.”  However, churches do not usually fall into these categories. Yes I know that our churches are educational, but our reasons for showing movies at church often do not fit the fair use parameters.

What about showing movies in a classroom? US Copyright Law (section 110) has another provision for the use of copyrighted materials in an educational classroom setting. Check out the article on classroom use from the University of Minnesota. The article explains, “To qualify for this exemption, you must: be in a classroom (‘or similar place devoted to instruction’). Be there in person, engaged in face-to-face teaching activities. Be at a nonprofit educational institution.” Section 110 additionally states the display of the copyrighted materials – i.e. showing a movie – must be “directly related and of material assistance to the teaching content of the transmission.”

So what does this mean for showing movies at church? It may mean that if your church offered a course on the Old Testament, you could show a documentary about ancient Israel in the classroom as part the lesson. (Of course this assumes that the church is being considered a non profit educational institution.) But showing Evan Almighty at youth group? Not fair use. Or showing Amistad to your adult group? Not really classroom use. And hosting a family movie night? Definitely not fair use. Most of the times that we show movies in church, we are conducting public performances. And for a public performance, one needs a license.

Getting a License
The good news is that you CAN show and watch movies at church – you just need a license! Getting a license to show movies in church is easy, and the price may be lower than you think. The first step is determining what movie you want to show, and where you want to show it. Then check out the licensing options below. You can opt for an annual license, allowing you to show many movies over the course of a year. Or for a larger movie event, you can opt for a one-time license.

The companies below may seem intimidating, but they are actually easy to contact and pleasant to work with. The websites are helpful for searching for movies and answering questions. When you call on the phone, a representative will discuss your needs and work with you to get the license you need. By getting a license, you can feel good knowing that you are doing the right thing, as well as setting a strong example for your congregation.

  • Swank Motion Pictures – This is your best bet for a planned and scheduled single movie event. The advantage of a license like this is that you have flexibility for showing and promoting your event. For example: indoor, outdoor, inviting the public, and even charging admission. Swank also has ready-made promotional templates such as posters. You can add your church name and event info to promote the movie showing.
  • Criterion Pictures – This licensing company is your go-to for showing films produced by 20th Century Fox. They have other producers as well, and the website will walk you through the options. Similar to Swank, Criterion offers one-time licenses per movie, per showing. Custom promotional materials are also available.
  • Church Video Licensing – This licensing option has been specifically designed for churches. They offer an annual ‘umbrella’ license that allows you to show movies at church throughout the year. They also have a one-week option. You do need to make sure that your desired movie is covered by CVL, and there are restrictions about promotion and viewing location. Overall, this license is intended for showing movies on church property to members of the congregation and their guests. As a bonus, CVL offer ScreenVue, which has movie clips to use as teasers, or in sermons. CVL is a division of MPLC, Motion Picture Licensing Corporation.
  • Movie Licensing USA – This licensing group is specifically tailored and priced for public libraries, as well as K-12 schools. Movie Licensing USA is a division of Swank Motion Pictures.

How Much Does a License Cost?
The price of a license depends on the size of the intended audience, the movie to be shown, and the location in which it will be shown. For a one-time license, the price is determined on a case-by-case basis, based on the factors above. For annual licenses from CVL, your flat rate simply depends on the size of your congregation (average combined worship attendance).

Planning a Large Church Movie Event
Thinking of going big? An open movie night at church can be an exciting community event. Check out this how-to guide for hosting a church movie night. This resource was put together and made available by a pastor in South Carolina in conjunction with Swank Motion Pictures. The guide has tips for planning, as well as obtaining the correct licensing for public and promoted movie events.


Blog was originally published on Building Faith.
Matthew Kozlowski manages, edits, and writes for Building Faith. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia with his wife Danielle and two young daughters. Throughout his career he has been a teacher, camp counselor, school chaplain, camp chaplain, Sunday school teacher, parish priest, and Alpha coordinator.
The information in this article should not be considered legal advice – it is for informational purposes only. For in depth questions on copyright law and fair use, consult with an attorney. 
Special thank you to Sharon Ely Pearson who wrote a 2011 article, which was the inspiration for this current article.