Can a college or university stream feature films through its VLE? (16 December 2011)

To stream a feature film there are two issues involved, and two possible sets of permission required:

  1. permission to convert the film to a format suitable for streaming, and
  2. permission to show a film to an audience.

1.      Permission to convert the film to a format suitable for streaming

To stream a film from a server would inevitably require changing the format from video or DVD to a format suitable for streaming.  A college or university is NOT allowed to change a film from video or DVD to another format without first contacting the producer and/or principal director.  So unless the college or university does that, and actually receives permission, streaming a film over a server is not possible.

Obtaining the required permission could be time-consuming and costly. For example, one solicitors' firm in Glasgow wanted to use The Clash’s “I Fought The Law” as the opening and closing music to a podcast, and ended up having to track down the individual members of the band, as well as the recording company and songwriter, to seek permission.  In the end, they would have had to pay £8000 in total for permissions therefore they decided not to use it. 

2.       Permission to show a film to an audience

Assuming the college or university gains permission from the copyright owners to convert the film for streaming and host it on the VLE, there is an exception (s.34(2) of Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA)) which permits the playing or showing of a sound recording or film before an audience consisting of teachers or pupils at an educational establishment.  This means that if the playing or showing of a work is only for purposes of instruction it would not constitute playing or showing of the work in public. 

For the college or university to rely on this exception movie content that is subsequently put on the VLE should be accessible only to the staff providing the instruction and students receiving it.  For any other purposes, permission would be required from the copyright owner of the film or an appropriate licence to put it on the VLE.  Furthermore s.34 only permits viewing a film on college or university premises therefore viewing on a VLE off campus would require permission from the copyright owners.

The only exception that might permit viewing outside college or university premises is where the film is being shown as part of an “examination” and sufficient acknowledgement is made of the source.  S.32(3) CDPA provides that copyright is not infringed by anything done for the purposes of an examination by way of setting the questions, communicating the questions to the candidates or answering questions.

Where viewing of a film falls outside the limited exceptions provided by s.34(2) and s.32(3) CDPA the relevant licensing body with regard to playing, showing or performance of movies in public is the Filmbank Distributors Ltd (Filmbank).  Filmbank operates the Public Video Screening Licence (PVSL) to cover the public screening or performance of films by certain studios in the non-theatrical market.  This licence would enable an educational establishment to screen a film for non-commercial purposes outside the limited purposes of instruction or examination for example, for entertainment. 

However the PVSL is limited to showing films within the licensed premises which would prohibit accessing the VLE outside of college or university premises.  It should be noted also that the PVSL does not allow adaptation or copying of the film therefore where a college or university holds a PVSL this does not remove the requirement to gain permission from the copyright owners prior to converting the film to a format suitable for streaming. 

In summary:

  • Permission would be required from the producer and/or principal director of a feature film prior to converting it for streaming through a college or university's VLE.
  • Permission to view the film would be required from the copyright owners unless viewing of a film is
    • for the purpose of instruction within the college or university premises, or
    • for the purpose of examination, or
    • the college or university are in possession of a PVSL and access to view films is restricted to within college or university premises.

In practice if permission was to be granted for converting the video or DVD of the film for streaming through the VLE then it is likely the copyright owners would also be willing to allow viewing of it.  It is likely most copyright owners would want the film put up behind a secure log-in, as open public access would be detrimental to any commercial exploitation.

For information on streaming broadcast films JISC Legal has published a separate FAQ

Posted on 16/12/2011

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