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Copyright Blog

Elementary School Fine Puts Public Performance Right in the Spotlight

Emerson Elementary's PTA was fined for showing "The Lion King" at a fundraiser.

After showing the 2019 remake of the Disney classic “The Lion King,” Emerson Elementary School’s Parent-Teacher Association in Berkeley, California received a letter from Disney’s licensing agency, Movie Licensing USA. The letter informed the PTA that they had broken copyright law and needed to pay $250.

U.S. copyright law grants copyright holders exclusive rights, including the right to the public performance of their work. The law defines a public performance, in relevant part, as a performance in "a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered." When someone purchases a copy of a film, they are granted the right to view the film in their home, but the right to public performance is retained by the copyright holder.

In this situation, Emerson Elementary’s PTA showed the movie at a fundraiser, where the PTA raised about $800 for the school. A dad in the PTA brought his copy of the movie to the fundraiser and it was screened while children played in the auditorium. No one knew that the PTA needed to pay a licensing fee to legally show the film at the fundraiser, so it came as a surprise when Disney’s licensing agency sent the letter informing them they had broken the law and would be required to pay a fee. The fee was likely equal to the amount of a one-time licensing fee for the public performance of the movie.

Furious and frustrated with the letter, Berkeley City Council member Lori Droste—whose children attend Emerson— wrote on Twitter, “Who wants to hear an unbelievable story about how Disney is essentially fining Berkeley’s Emerson Elementary School PTA $250 while reaping millions of dollars through a corporate loophole that has decimated public schools across California?”

After the story made headlines (see articles here, here, here, and here), Disney CEO Bob Iger took to Twitter to express his and Disney’s apologies to the Emerson Elementary PTA, even stating that he will personally donate to their fundraising initiative. Disney has also reportedly waived the $250 fee initially sent by the licensing agency to the PTA. Donations to the PTA have poured in since the story gained national attention, but Berkeley City Council member Lori Droste has urged would-be-donors to donate to their local schools instead.