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 Images, Clips & Public Performance Licensing:

Except in special "Fair Use" cases, before you can use movie stills or film clips from classic movies, or host a public screening of a classic movie, either for commercial or non-profit purposes, you must first get permission from the copyright owner.  The information below can help you better understand when, how and where to get this permission.

Understanding "Fair Use" of Copyrighted Materials | Understanding "Public Domain"

Using Movie Stills or Film Clips | Hosting a Public Movie Screening

Understanding "Fair Use" of Copyrighted Materials

Although in most cases, you need to get permission from the owner of copyrighted material before using or reproducing it, Title 17: Chapter 1 § 107 of the United States Code does provide for special instances in which copyrighted materials can legally be used without permission from the owner.

Section 107, "Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use," says in part:

The fair use of a copyrighted work ... for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include--

  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.

In other words, for certain non-commercial, nonprofit educational purposes, a small portion of a film (for example, a still or clip) can be reproduced without first obtaining the permission of the copyright holder, but you should still give credit to and acknowledge the copyright holder as the source of the material.  (For example, under an image or clip from BAMBI (1942): "©The Walt Disney Company".) For more information, check out the Helpful Licensing Links below.


Understanding "Public Domain":

Material that was never copyrighted is considered to be in the "public domain" and can be used freely by anyone (although just because the work was never formally registered with the US Copyright Office does not mean it is not copyrighted).  There is also previously copyrighted material whose copyright has expired that is now in the public domain (meaning it is no longer protected by copyright laws and can be used freely by anyone). However, contrary to popular belief, age has very little to do with determining the copyright status of anything. (Only materials copyrighted before 1923 are now in the public domain due to age.) The fact that the company that produced, published or originally copyrighted something is now out of business is also irrelevant.

Most public domain materials lost their copyright protection because their copyright owners failed to renew the copyright on them (which has do be done periodically). But determining whether or not that has actually happened to any specific work is very complicated and requires research at the US Copyright Office. If the renewals have been kept up properly, there is a complicated method for determining the duration of the copyright for anything produced in or after 1923 (depending on the date the work was created and the date of death of its creator), but essentially most copyrighted material will fall into the public domain 95 years after it was originally copyrighted -- so that won't begin to happen until 2019. (And the last two times that expiration date has approached, the big media firms have lobbied Congress to get the term of copyright extended -- from 28 years, to 75 years, to the current 95 years. Basically, the Walt Disney Company does not want Mickey Mouse (copyrighted in 1928) to fall into the public domain.)

There is no official list out there of all the movies, photos or other copyrighted materials that have fallen into the public domain, so it is incumbent upon the user to determine the copyright status of anything before it is used or reproduced.  Back in 1973, people thought IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) had fallen into the public domain, and the film was freely shown on television and sold on video tape unlicensed until 1993 when Republic Pictures determined that although it had inadvertently allowed the copyright on the film itself to expire, it still held the copyright to the film's music.  Thus, while the video component of the film is in the public domain, its audio isn't, and who wants to watch a "talking picture" without sound?  In other words, even if everyone else is using it without permission, that doesn't mean it's necessarily legal to do so.

For more information about public domain materials, see the Helpful Licensing Links below.


Using Movie Stills or Film Clips:

Using classic movie photos or images in any kind of commercial publication or project -- for example, in a newsletter, magazine, or newspaper, or on any kind of consumer product like a t-shirt, poster, Christmas ornament, mouse pad, etc. -- requires a license from the copyright holder, as does the use of movie clips in documentaries, movies, advertisements, etc.  In addition to getting permission from the copyright holder (step 1), in instances where the use of the movie image is not directly related to the promotion of the movie itself (if for example, you wanted to use a still of John Wayne boxing in THE QUIET MAN to promote or illustrate something other than the film THE QUIET MAN -- like, say, a poster for an upcoming boxing tournament), you must also contact the stars (or, if deceased, their estate) featured in the still or clip and get permission from them to use their name, image or likeness (step 2).  If using a film clip, you must separately get permission for the use of any music that may be featured in the clip from everyone involved in writing, performing, publishing or producing that music or song (step 3).  Getting permission from the film clip or still's copyright holder can be expensive but is relatively easy compared to getting permission from the stars (or their estates) and the music publishers.  Read on...

When it comes to photos and movie stills, there are independent vendors who license hundreds of thousands of photos for commercial or professional use, many of whom have a large selection of classic movie-related images to chose from.  Although the licensing departments of the studios themselves will generally have the largest selection, they can often be more difficult to deal with.  When it comes to film clips however, there are no intermediaries -- you'll need to license directly from the studios.  Below is some contact information that should help you obtain the permission you need.

(step 1) Independent Licensers of Images for Commercial/Professional Use:

  • The Motion Picture and Television Photo Archive (16735 Saticoy Street, Suite 109, Van Nuys, CA 91406, tel: 818-997-8292, fax: 818-997-3998) --specializing in the work of still photographers whose subject matter is primarily the entertainment industry, MPTV licenses its images for editorial and commercial use and also makes gallery prints available for public purchase.
  • Archive Photos (530 West 25 Street, NY, NY 10001, tel: 1-800-447-0733, fax: 212-645-2137) --commercial only; does not sell directly to the public.
  • Everett Collection (104 W. 27th Street, New York, NY 10003, tel: 212-255-8610, ext. 1; fax: 212-255-8612) --another large collection of movie-related photos and stills available to the publishing industry worldwide.
  • British Film Institute --the BFI sells prints of photos, movie stills and poster images from its vast collect both for personal use and for use in publications and online.
  • Hershenson-Allen Poster Image Archive --licenses publication-friendly transparencies of poster art from more than 35,000 classic movie posters and lobby cards.
  • Corbis Digital Pictures --digital (computer file) pictures for personal or professional use.
  • Getty Images --the leading provider of imagery and film to communications
    professionals around the world

(step 1) Studio Image/Clip Licensing Departments:

  • Allied Artists (273 W. Allen Ave., San Dimas, CA 91773; tel: 626-330-0600; fax: 626-961-0411) --licenses only from post-1980 Allied Artists Pictures library.
  • HBO Archives (1100 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036; tel: 877-426-1121) --licenses the use of video clips from their in house productions and sporting events as well as the famous MARCH OF TIME newsreel series (produced by the publishers of Time and Life from 1935-1967) and the Universal newsreels.
  • Disney Consumer Products (500 S. Buena Vista, Burbank, CA 91521-6781) --licenses the use of movie stills, video clips and audio clips from titles in the Walt Disney Pictures, Buena Vista Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Hollywood Pictures, Miramax Films and Dimension Films libraries.
  • MGM Clip+Still (2500 Broadway Street, Santa Monica, CA 90404, tel: 310-449-3572, fax: 310-449-3277) --licenses the use of movie stills, video clips and audio clips from titles in the post-1982 MGM, post-1996 Samuel Goldwyn Films, United Artists, Orion, Polygram and Cannon libraries.
  • Paramount Clip Licensing (5555 Melrose Avenue, Hollywood, CA 90038; tel: 323-956-5184; fax: 323-862-2231) --licenses the use of movie stills, video clips and audio clips from titles in the Paramount Pictures, Republic Pictures, Rysher Entertainment, Spelling/Worldvision, and Viacom Productions libraries.
  • Samuel Goldwyn Films (9750 W. Pico Blvd, Ste 400, Los Angeles, CA 90035; tel: 310-860-3100; fax: 310-860-3195) --licenses the use of movie stills, video clips and audio clips from titles in the Samuel Goldwyn Sr., pre-1996 Samuel Goldwyn Jr., and portions of the Rodgers & Hammerstein film libraries.
  • Sony Pictures Entertainment Clip & Still Licensing (10202 West Washington Blvd., Turner Bldg., Suite #4314, Culver City, CA 90232; info line: 310-244-7306; tel: 310-244-7554; fax: 310-244-1336) --licenses the use of movie stills, video clips and audio clips from titles in the Columbia Pictures, TriStar Pictures, Screen Gems, and Sony Pictures Classics libraries.
  • 20th Century-Fox Licensing and Merchandising (P.O. Box 900, Beverly Hills, CA 90213-0900; tel: 310-369-1000; fax: 310-369-4647) --licenses the use of movie stills, video clips and audio clips from titles in the Twentieth Century Fox, Fox 2000 Pictures, Fox Searchlight Pictures, and Fox Animation Studios libraries.
  • Universal Studios Media Licensing (100 Universal City Plaza, 1440/15, Universal City, CA 91608; tel: 818-777-1273; fax: 818-866-2399) --licenses the use of movie stills, video clips and audio clips from titles in the Universal Pictures, Universal/International Pictures and International Pictures libraries.
  • Warner Bros. Licensing Department (4000 Warner Blvd., Building #11, Burbank, CA 91522; info line: 818-954-2298; tel: 818-954-1853; fax: 818-954-3817) --licenses the use of movie stills, video clips and audio clips from titles in the Warner Bros., First National Pictures, pre-1982 MGM, pre-1948 RKO and Turner Entertainment libraries.

(step 2) Contacts for Licensing the Name/Image/Likeness of a Star:

  • Screen Actors Guild (5757 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036-3600; tel: 323-954-1600) --the place to start when attempting to contact a living performer about getting permission to use their image or likeness; in most cases, SAG can put you in contact with the star's agent or other legal representative.
  • CMG Worldwide (10500 Crosspoint Boulevard, Indianapolis, IN 46256; tel: 317-570-5000) --licenses the image and likeness of dozens of deceased classic movie stars and other celebrities.
  • The Roger Richman Agency (9777 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 700, Beverly Hills, CA 90212; tel: 310-276-7000 ) --another major firm licensing the image of dozens of deceased Hollywood legends.
  • Global Icons (12400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025; tel: 310-820-5300) --representing the estates of deceased stars like Bing Crosby, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.
  • MODA Entertainment (311 W 43rd St, Suite 1101, New York, NY 10036; tel: 212-873-3324) --coordinates licensing for the likes of Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Betty Garrett, Joel McCrea, Alan Ladd, Celeste Holm, Frances Dee, John Garfield, Robert Mitchum and Patricia Neal.
  • Greenlight Rights (6060 Center Drive, Suite 100, Los Angeles, CA 90045; tel: 212-445-8107) -- manages personality rights for a few deceased celebrities, including Steve McQueen and Mae West.
  • Other individual estates or licensing representatives:

(step 3) Contacts for Licensing Music:

Helpful Licensing Links:


Hosting a Public Movie Screening:

A "public screening" of a classic movie means showing a film outside of a private home environment or to someone other than family or social acquaintances. Hotels, restaurants, private clubs, prisons, factories, summer camps, public libraries, day-care facilities, parks and recreation departments, churches, and non-classroom use at schools and universities are all examples of situations where a public performance license must be obtained before a movie can be shown. This legal requirement applies regardless of whether an admission fee is charged, whether the institution or organization is commercial or non-profit, or whether a federal or state agency is involved.

To obtain permission for a public screening of a specific film in the United States, contact the film's distributor listed on the 16mm & 35mm Films page.  (Public performance licenses are generally sold by the studios' distributors -- who, in most instances, also rent prints or broadcast-quality tapes of the films -- rather than the studios themselves.)  For distributors who license public screenings outside the U.S., see the links below.

Umbrella Licenses which permit the non-revenue-generating public performance of home videos and DVDs are available to non-profit groups, certain businesses and government organizations for a low annual fee through the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation.  Groups such as child care programs, public libraries, schools, clubs, park and recreation departments, and certain corporations who would like to host multiple public film screenings over a given period of time (and without charging admission) may wish to pursue this option. 

Qualifying churches and other ministry organizations (such as church schools, childcare, conferences, and camps) can obtain umbrella licenses which permit the non-revenue-generating public performance of home videos and DVDs (of both religious and mainstream secular titles) from Church Video Licensing International.

Non-U.S. Licensing Links:

  • Launching Films -- web site of the UK's Film Distributors' Association
  • National Film and Video Foundation -- South Africa's national film body
  • To find licensed distributors for other parts of the world, contact the individual studios using the information in the Clips and Still Licensing section above.

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Last updated: March 10, 2011.
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