Film Copyright Laws

Before home video technology, many people didn't think about film copyright laws. Now, technology allows people to copy films in ways that may violate the copyright owner's rights.

DVD bootlegs of films taped in a theatre with a hidden camcorder are a cheap way to see a new release, but those discs violate copyright laws. Other digital methods of film distribution may infringe on the copyright of the film's owner.

Copyright Purpose

A copyright allows the copyright holder to profit from his work. While films are art, they are also big business. Studios want to make as much money as they can from each movie and filmmaking is a multibillion dollar industry. However, according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), only six out of every 10 films made turn a profit.


The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, championed by the late Sonny Bono, extended the length of time the copyright remains in force before it enters the public domain. A film made by an individual has copyright protection for the life of the author plus 70 years. Films copyrighted by companies are protected for 120 years after creation or 95 years after the film is released, whichever comes first.

What Copyright Laws Forbid

Copyright laws are designed to prevent people from doing anything that will allow them to profit from a film that is not in the public domain. Among the ways that this can be done are releasing the film early (online or otherwise), selling bootleg copies, or appropriating characters or situations depicted in the film.

Fair Use

Under copyright law, a person is allowed to make use of a limited amount of copyrighted material. Fair Use law is a little murky, but according to the U.S. Copyright office, a person may use brief portions of a film for the purposes of "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research." You are allowed to, for example, play a brief clip from a movie during a speech to illustrate a point you are trying to make. This could also include posting a brief excerpt of a film on your blog to accompany an essay you've written. However, the Center for Social Media advises that you consider whether the copyrighted work was transformed into something substantially new and whether an excessive amount of the copyrighted work was used.

Ripping From DVDs

In response to the challenges to film copyrights caused by technological advances, the U.S. government adopted the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). As DVDs became a more popular way of distributing films, people figured out how to remove the digital data for their own purposes. Rob Pegoraro of the Washington Post explained that the DMCA makes it illegal to try to "circumvent those types of digital restrictions." Ripping the digital code of a film is often how film pirates distribute a film, either online or burnt onto a disk.