Have you ever gone to the movies and seen one of the posters there and thought it was ridiculous? Maybe you want to go home and film a well-made video critiquing it.
But are you allowed to you movie posters in your videos? What are copyright laws, and how do they apply to YouTube? Keep reading to find out!
Before we proceed, it’s important to note that I am not a legal professional or authorized to give legal advice. We recommend you seek a licensed legal professional if you need legal counseling.
Are Movie Posters in the Public Domain?
Some movie posters are in the public domain because they have fallen to public use. Under U.S. law, movie posters are protected under copyright law for a certain amount of time. Copyright allows movie producers to profit from the production without fearing the theft of their works.
There is no short and sweet answer to what copyright law is and when it is applied. To fully understand this law and its application, you need to understand the definition of copyright and public domain.
Copyright law is defined under 17 U.S. Code § 102, Subject Matter of Copyright: In General. Under this code, copyright protects ownership of specific creative media. Copyright is broadly applicable to the following items:
- Moving Images
Check out what I found!
This law applies to movie posters and their unauthorized use. Under this code, any movie posters (or music, etc.) made before January 1st, 1978, are not automatically protected by copyright law.
Under the Copyright law of 1909, creators must renew their work’s copyright every 28 years. Copyright holders can choose to renew their copyrights before they expire. However, movie posters and other media made between 1923 through 1959 are probably in the public domain.
This applies to all works before 1978, which fall under the new copyright law.
It may be in the public domain if they fail to renew their works. The public may use images, literary works, video clips, and other protected subjects. You can find out if something is still covered by searching the U.S. Copyright database.
We will discuss this topic further in a later section.
Movie posters are not in the public domain and are protected products under copyright law. There are ways to legally use these in videos and blog posts, but you must be careful. We will dive deeper into public domain law and how it applies to copyrighted images and videos.
How Do You Know if Something is Copyrighted?
Sometimes it’s easier to identify whether an item is copyrighted or not. Sometimes a small “c” inside a circle next to an image, slogan, or other proprietary work indicates copyright. Or, it might clearly state “copyrighted” next to the material in question.
Some copyrighted materials require public registration and notification. This includes filing your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, which handles and distributes copyright registrations. I go into some further details on movie posters and copyright here: Do Movie Posters Have Copyright?
They notify Congress of new copyright requirements and assist in publicly announcing copyrighted material. While most copyrighted slogans, images, and other unique displays have a little “C” or state “copyrighted, DATE,” different materials don’t require a mark.
Some materials, like movie posters, names, and other unique properties, are automatically assumed copyrighted. Most, however, choose to state “all rights reserved” at the bottom of a webpage or beside the production name.
All rights reserved indicate the same thing as “copyright” when placed at the end of a production piece. You can see this example on this movie website where it states “Lucas Film Limited, All Rights Reserved” at the end of the webpage.
However, you probably won’t see this statement at the end of a movie poster. Why is that?
This is because the phrase “all rights reserved” is redundant. In most circumstances, you don’t have to say this unless a legal professional advises you otherwise.
Intellectual property, like movies and books, belongs uniquely to the author and production house.
Writing “all rights reserved” doesn’t enhance the legal protection of a movie poster or website. U.S. copyright law already protects the exclusive use of these images, slogans, etc., to the owner(s). It’s an assumed copyright and therefore does not require public notification.
You might be familiar with the F.B.I. notice at a film’s opening. This is more of a warning about a criminal act rather than a copyright notification. Providing a public statement warns potential thieves that copying and selling copyrighted material is a federal crime.
This notice falls under a deterrence notification designed to deter people from pirating movies. Additionally, this could be considered part of your Miranda Rights, although this isn’t clear.
The copyright on movies and related merchandise is assumed as long as it hasn’t expired. If the film is old, you can find out if the copyright was renewed by searching the copyright records.
When Is It Legal to Use Movie Posters in YouTube Videos?
You can assume it’s safe to use a movie poster in two ways. The first way is to ask permission from the copyright holder to use their images or other media in your video. The second way is to wait for the copyright to expire and ensure the owner(s) never renewed the copyright.
One of the most commonly touted ways to use copyrighted materials on YouTube is under fair use. Fair use does not give you a free pass to use media however you feel. And simply placing a disclaimer that you don’t own the material doesn’t make it okay.
Fair use allows people to use images, videos, quotes, and other media for literary criticism. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to be a film or literary critic to use these materials.
It means you can only use this media, or movie poster, to critique it. If you’re planning to make a YouTube video critiquing a film, you can use the images, such as movie posters, in your video.
However, you must be careful how you use it and ensure you only use it for commentary or critique. The uses which are protected under fair use include the following:
Using copyrighted material in scholarly works is “generally” considered protected use.
The safest way to use a movie poster is to request permission. According to Stanford University, requesting permission follows a five-step process:
- Identify the material you want to use
- Determine how you wish to use it
- Identify the owner
- Identify the rights you need
- Negotiate payment if required and get written permission
This is the safest way to use copyrighted movie posters in YouTube videos. It might not be necessary under all circumstances, such as protected Fair Use. But if you’re uncertain, you can request permission to use it.
Finally, as we discussed in the first section, you can use media that are in the public domain. If you need clarification on whether the poster you want to use is copyrighted, check with the Copyright Office.
By this point in the article, you may be asking yourself if Instagram allows the use of Movie Posters….well this is what we found.
What Happens if You Misuse Copyrighted Material?
Pirating materials is highly illegal and can result in hefty fines or prison time. Most of the time, if you use copyrighted material in a small production, you will be asked to remove it. It’s unlikely to result in a fine or jail time if it was an honest mistake and you complied with the owner’s request.
According to the Department of Justice (D.O.J.), copyright infringement is a federal offense. This means you can be tried in a federal court and go to federal prison if convicted.
Most of the harsher penalties are reserved for the crime of piracy. No, this has nothing to do with being a buccaneer. Rather it refers to the act of illegally copying and selling content. People usually pirate entire movies, which they resell on the black market.
This is highly illegal.
However, wrongfully using media in a YouTube video can fall under copyright infringement. You should treat this crime as a severe offense and something you’d want to avoid. Wrongful use of copyrighted material can result in a lawsuit if the owner wishes to pursue legal action.
Sometimes you get lucky, and they either don’t know or don’t care that you use their work. However, since they are the owners and have the right to reap profits from their work, they have the right to sue.
If you refuse to comply, they will probably press charges and attempt a lawsuit. The safest way to use copyrighted material is to verify you’re using it properly and giving the owner their dues.
The owner may request that you pay them royalties for permission to use their work. Royalties are payments made to the product owner in exchange for using their product.
The most common form of royalties is music and book royalties paid to authors. This gives the production company the right to use the media and make money from it. However, using images in YouTube videos doesn’t usually require royalty payments.
Ultimately, it’s the choice and right of the owner to decide. If you are looking for ways to get permission to use copyrighted material, you will find this post useful: How To Get Copyright Permissions For Your Fan Art Movie Posters.
Is It Legal to Use Movie Posters in Countries Outside the U.S.A.?
While laws do differ between countries, copyrights made in the U.S. are applicable overseas. This means if you live in Brittain and want to use content copyrighted in America, you need to ask permission. Likewise, if you want to use media that is copyrighted overseas, you’ll have to request permission from the owner where the copyright was made.
There is no standard and applicable international copyright law. This doesn’t mean copyrights aren’t applicable overseas, but it does mean prosecution is very difficult. In most instances, copyright law can only be enforced in countries that have agreements with the U.S.A.
For example, the Godzilla film franchise is protected by copyright in Japan and the U.S.A. This means you can’t freely use or reproduce this content without permission in either country.
Check out: Is Fan Art Plagiarism? How To Safely Sell Your Artwork! & This Is How To Sell Fan Art Legally & Illegally.
YouTube is something we all enjoy and we would likely be lost without it. YouTubers put a lot of work and effort into their creations and deserve a lot of credit.
Although copyright law might seem like a nuisance preventing you from making a video, it’s there to protect everyone. Copyright law applies to YouTube as well as movie posters.
While people can link to YouTube videos, they are banned from uploading someone else’s content and claiming ownership. So, don’t be depressed! These laws protect your creations as well!
…and speaking of YouTube, check out our Poster Grind Channel.
…one last article worth mentioning is: Can I Use Movie Posters On My Blog? (Should I Credit The Owner?)
Cornell: 17 U.S. Code § 102 – Subject matter of copyright: In general
Copyright.Gov: Renewal of Copyright
Vintage Posters: Movie Poster Copyright
Copyright.Gov: Highlight: Congress Passes First Comprehensive Copyright Law of the Twentieth Century
Stanford: Searching the Copyright Office and Library of Congress Records
Small Business: How to Identify a Copyright
WUR.: What does “All rights reserved” mean?
Quora: Why do movies have FBI warnings?
Penn State: Q. How does fair use work for book covers, album covers, and movie posters?
Stanford: The Basics of Getting Permission
DOJ: 1852. COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT — PENALTIES — 17 U.S.C. 506(A) AND 18 U.S.C 2319
Quora: What happens if you use copyrighted material without permission?
Investopedia: What Is a Royalty? How Payments Work and Types of Royalties