Is it Illegal to Show an Outdoor Movie in My Backyard or Garden?

Are you planning on showing a movie in your backyard or garden? Are you worried about potentially breaking copyright law?

You are not alone, as this is a question that I am often asked to answer for people looking to show a movie in their backyard.  

Large outdoor movie projectors have become more common recently with consumers and members of the public and so many people are now showing movies in their own backyards.

But with this recent trend has also come concerns from people, and rightly so, about copyright law and legal issues.

There have been some cases where legal action has been brought, so it makes sense that you should find out whether running a backyard cinema is going to be illegal. 

Now just because you own the DVD or have purchased the download, this doesn’t mean that you have the legal right to show the film to hundreds of people in public.

But if you own the movie and are showing it on your own private property to family and friends then it’s perfectly legal to do so – but there are some caveats and guidelines which you will need to think about – and I am going to take you through those below.

As a general rule of thumb, it is considered “fair use” in United States law to play or watch a movie in the privacy of your own home (or backyard). This is as long as it could not be considered or argue in law as being a public viewing.

My advice to you is to ask yourself two key questions:

  1. Is your movie showing private?
  2. Is the movie being shown to just your friends and family?

If you can answer yes to both of those, then I am confident that you will not be breaking any laws.

What the Law Says

According to US Law then you can show films and movies without having to purchase a license if it is deemed that the audience you are showing the backyard movie to is considered to be a normal circle of family and social acquaintances. 

When it becomes a little more complex is when the film viewing is considered to be public. You can read the statement regarding copyright law on the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation website by clicking here.

If you take the time to read that, you will see that the law isn’t particularly clear on what actually constitutes what is private and what is public.

This means both you as the person showing the movie in your backyard, and also the corporations who own the movie rights, need to exercise common sense when it comes to applying the law. 

Example Public Viewing Scenarios

Examples of where your outdoor movie would be considered to be a public viewing would be scenarios where a film is being shown at events such as:

  • Business event
  • Charity event or fundraiser
  • Church Fair
  • Sporting event
  • Commercial event
  • Community event
  • Concerts
  • Hotels and motels

That’s not an exhaustive list, but what it boils down to is whether or not there are people attending the movie showing who you don’t know, or are being charged, or could be deemed to be a public place.

In simple terms, people who are not your friends or family in a public place.

Having said that, there will probably be lawyers out there who will start to refer to numbers of people, regardless of whether they are your family and friends or not.

A lawyer might say to you that any more than 10 people is going to start blurring the lines of copyright law when showing backyard movies. But this would just be their own opinion, as US law doesn’t refer to numbers.

My personal view on this is that if you play a movie in your backyard or garden and have 30 people turn up – let’s say it was a block party – and you knew all of those people then that’s perfectly fine.

But let’s just extrapolate that for a second.

You are planning on a block party or community party for your street where perhaps 100 people could turn up in your backyard to watch a movie or film – which is not an unheard-of scenario in America.

Will you honestly be able to say that you know all of these people and that they could be viewed all as family and friends?

Probably not.

If you can’t put names on people, and there’s a large volume of them watching your backyard movie, then I would say you are now skating on thin ice when it comes to copyright laws as it starting to look very public.

My Recommendations

If you do feel that you are within the law with the showing of your backyard movie, then there are some further considerations I would recommend, just to make sure you remain on the side of the law.

Those are:

  • Don’t play a pirate version of the movie, make sure it’s a legitimately purchased copy
  • Don’t charge your friends and family to attend the private screening
  • Don’t play movies with obscene content with kids around
  • Don’t exceed noise and volume levels that could disturb neighbors
  • Make sure that members of the public cannot view the movie being played

By taking those precautions it will mean you won’t be attracting the attention of anybody who could be inclined to challenge the legality of what you are doing.

The Last Word

Please note that I am not a lawyer so do not take the advice in this blog post as being definite from a legal perspective. I would always recommend that if you are unsure, seek proper legal advice from a qualified professional.

What I am though is an expert on backyard movies and showing films to friends and relations on outdoor movie projectors.

I have extensively researched the web to find out what the legal and copyright issues are surrounding showing movies in your backyard and compiled that all into the information set out on this page.

Hopefully, it helps you, and I wish you all the luck with your outdoor movie project!