Film Hall faces an uncertain future due to intellectual property laws after an illegal public screening of “Black Snake Moan.” Problems began after Rose Agger ’10, Film Hall’s house manager, posted an advertisement for the screening on the popular student-run Wesleying blog on Sept. 11, 2008.
A distribution company contacted the Film Department (which does not control Film Hall) to complain about the illegal screening. The University will now require that the hall acquire the rights to show all of its films. The three-year-old program hall has shown movies for free on its screen in the basement of Nicholson 6 since its conception.
“Swank Motion Pictures Incorporated—it’s an enormous distribution company—was apparently scouring the Internet,” Agger said. “They saw on Wesleying that someone was showing their movie, and I didn’t have any kind of rights.”
The University was fined and Residential Life (ResLife) informed Residential Advisors (RAs) and house managers that they could no longer publicly show films. Tim Shiner, the University’s Director of Student Activities and Leadership Development, is responsible for helping student groups get the rights to movies. He stated that he and the rest of the administration were unaware of Film Hall’s previous activities.
“They should not have been publicly showing movies, ever,” Shiner said. “If they have been showing movies for several years, I did not know about it. They never registered their events.”
Agger was caught off-guard by Swank’s intervention.
“Other program houses, RAs and student groups have screened films without the rights,” she said.
Distribution companies can discover violations of intellectual property laws by watching what students post online, so student groups now face a greater risk of getting into legal trouble because of Wesleying.
“Wesleying wasn’t popular until last year or the year before, and we avoided posting there,” said Michael Lubrano ’09, Film Hall’s previous manager, explaining why students are just now facing legal issues.
Adminstrators such as Shiner did not previously know about the intellectual property violations by student groups because Wesleying is not affiliated with the University.
“I don’t police it [Wesleying],” said Shiner. “If they had posted on a University website, I would have caught it, and we would have gotten the rights to the films they wanted to show.”
The University may now face tougher scrutiny from film distributors as a result of the problems with Film Hall. Shiner hopes to further inform students about intellectual property laws in order to avoid more trouble in the future.
“I think we’re going to have a lot more educational involvement,” he said. “I would rather not have to worry about enforcement.”
Agger believes that the University was already being watched closely because of the numerous rights it applies for and receives for the Film Series.
“Maybe Swank was checking Wesleying a lot because we’re on everyone’s naughty list,” she said.
It could be difficult for Film Hall to get legal rights to show movies. Shiner said that four or five student groups have legally shown movies this year, but the bulk of those were documentaries, which are usually free to show. Rights for Hollywood films can be extremely expensive, and Film Hall has a limited budget. Shiner and Agger both said that Film Hall would apply to the Student Budgetary Committee (SBC) for more funds to continue its programs legally.
“If the University created a [program] hall with the intention of them showing films, they should have been prepared to pay for films,” said SBC Chair Chris Goy ’09. “It’s not the student body’s fault that the University didn’t plan ahead.”
For the moment, Film Hall’s status is unresolved. It will not be screening movies until it can afford to buy legal rights. Consequently, it may not be able to conduct enough programs to remain a program hall.
“It’s just hard,” said Agger. “It puts Film Hall as a program in jeopardy in terms of our standing and existence.”