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How Can a Restaurant Obtain a License to Show Old Movies?

Restaurant interior with screen on the wall.
starush/iStock/Getty Images

Showing old movies in a restaurant sets the atmosphere for special occasions or to increase patronage on the slower nights of the week. Before making the big announcement to show old movies, considerations must be given to the legal issues regarding the public showing of copyrighted materials.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) serves as an advocate for the movie industry and is a leader in public education regarding movie copyrights. The MPAA website summarizes the “Federal Copyright Act (Title 17 of the U.S. Code) governs how copyrighted materials, such as movies, may be used.” Renting or buying a copy of a movie only includes the right to show the film in a private home. A performance license must be purchased to show the same movie in a public setting. “This legal requirement” for any public viewing at a restaurant or other public location “applies regardless of whether an admission fee is charged.”

Performance Licensing

A performance license is necessary to show old movies that still have rights reserved by the motion picture company or a distributor. A license is often purchased as an umbrella license, a single license agreement that covers multiple issues. Rates vary according to the number of people viewing, how often the movie will be played and if there are entry fees or cover charges.

Licensing Firms

MPAA recommends three companies to contact in order to establish a performance license. Each company represents nearly every motion picture company or distributor, so any of the three can help obtain the license needed by a restaurant to show old movies.

Swank Motion Pictures, Inc. Swank.com
(800) 876-5577

Criterion Pictures CriterionPicUSA.com (800) 890-9494

Motion Picture Licensing Corporation (MPLC) MPLC.com (800) 462-8855

Creative Commons

The majority of movies available for download online are under Creative Commons licenses. There are a variety of license agreements under the Creative Commons label. The four key licenses that have varying restrictions but still allow for publicly showing old movies include Attribution, Attribution Share Alike, Attribution Non-Commercial and the Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike. Each license does not charge performance fees but has requirements that each film is properly credited and a copy of the specific Creative Commons license for that movie is displayed.

Public Domain

Creative Commons licensing covers films that have expired the term of the copyright and are now considered public domain. According to CreativeCommons.org, “A work is in the public domain when it is free for use by anyone for any purpose without restriction under copyright.”

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