6 Myths on Showing Movies at Youth Events

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Ever wondered if it was legal to show a movie at your church? Find out if you've been breaking the law.

Have you ever actually read that little FBI warning at the beginning of a movie? Well, lucky (and unlucky) for us, that little warning has absolutely nothing to do with showing a movie in a youth ministry setting.

Over my years in youth ministry, I have moved through the following progression when it comes to the issue of movies and copyrights.

  • intentional ignorance on the matter of copyright law
  • learning a little about it and then not really caring too much
  • taking the copyright issue pretty seriously

A few years ago, when everyone was rocking Napster (the illegal predecessor to napster.com), I began to do some research on the reasons why breaking the music copyright was so bad. Hopefully, all of us are on board with that issue by now, but that issue got me thinking about other areas of copyright law.

I’ve realized that as a representative of Christ in my community and as a model for my church, I need to “play by the rules” in order to not only live a “life that is above reproach,” but also so that I’m not stealing from others.

Common Misconceptions

1. The FBI warning says that I can’t charge money for people to watch the movie, so my event is okay.
The FBI warning actually does pertain to an individual showing a movie within the home.

2. As long I am using the movie as a church event, I am within the copyright laws.
This is a false statement, because the only instance in which a movie may be screened outside of a home without a license is in a non-profit educational setting with “face-to-face instruction.”

3. If I make a lesson out of the movie that I want to show, I will be within the copyright laws.
A non-profit educational setting has been specifically defined as a non-profit academic institution. The main activity of a church is not academics.

4. My church has the CVLI, so we can show movies at any church event that we do.
This license only pertains to a church showing movies “in its facility(ies.)” This means that if you have a current CVLI (Church Video License), you may show any legally obtained movie in your church property. (See points 1 and 4 on this page at CVLI.com.)

CVLI covers those movies “produced and/or distributed by CVLI affiliated motion picture companies only,” according to point 6. This means that not all films are covered under your CVLI license, so you may need to purchase a license to show films that aren’t covered. You may be able to contact the motion picture company and get written permission to show the movie. If that company is the copyright holder, it can waive its rights and grant a church or ministry permission to show the movie. If you want to do this, do it well in advance, though, because the process is s-l-o-w.

5. I can throw up a sheet, a PA system, and a projector to show the movie in the back yard of the church because I am within the church property.
The CVLI specifically says that movies can be screened in its facilities. Upon speaking to a representative at CVLI, I pressed for clarification of “in facilities.” The answer that I got was that you would most likely be within the spirit of the agreement if the movie was screened outdoors only if in a secluded area where there was no chance that someone from the general public would see or hear any portion of the movie that was being screened.

6. Since I’m not charging a fee, I am showing the movie inside of my church, and I have the CVLI, I can advertise my event in any fashion that I want.
In case you missed reading point 4 of the CVLI terms, “No specific titles, or any characters from such titles, or producers’ names will be advertised or publicized to the general public unless authorized by certain producers.”

Much more info on this topic can be found at:

Next Steps

  • Make sure that your church has a current CVLI.
  • Determine if a movie is covered under your CVLI, and make sure to obtain the proper license for films not covered.
  • Only show movies at a youth ministry event within your church or at a camp location that has its own license, since the license is restricted to a physical location.
  • Invite a few students over to your house, where you show a movie inside without any advertising of any sort through your church.

It is possible to still do a movie event for the public; you’ll still need to procure a license from mplc.org, but make sure you follow their guidelines.

I hope this helps clear up some of the movie copyright confusion. Of course, there are a ton of other areas that I could have addressed, but I’m not a copyright lawyer; I’m a youth pastor. So, I am not giving you any legal advice on this matter, just a few tips and pointers.

If you have questions about your situation, it would be best to chat with your church’s attorney or speak directly with an attorney who specializes in copyright law since this is a very in depth area of law (which you noticed if you checked out copyright.gov).  

Chris Szulwach Chris Szulwach is a youth pastor in Liverpool, NY. He has 11 years experience as a volunteer, para-church staff, and as a pastor. Chris blogs at CoffeeWithChris.com and YouthMinBlog.com, and you can follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/CoffeeWithChris

More from Chris Szulwach or visit Chris at http://CoffeeWithChris.com

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  • Nick

    thank you for writing this, and for writing it very well