On 30th October 2008, the South Asian Studies Society, with support from the Department of South Asian Studies at NUS organized a screening of Aamir Khan’s critically acclaimed film, Taare Zameen Par. The film was a critique of the Indian education system and highlighted the problem of dyslexia in young children.
Then-NUS undergraduate, Lee Wei Fen, recalls that the department had to fork out $250 to obtain copyrights permissions for the screening of the film.
Indeed, according to the Office of Student Affairs’ website (link no longer valid – refer to screenshot below): clearance is needed for the screening of films on campus as such screenings “[are] considered public viewing” – “such movies are protected by the Copyright Act”, and “the Copyright Act also applies to screening of such movies in NUS”.
Wei Fen recalls being tasked to contact Network 2009 – the local distributor of Taare Zameen Par- at Little India, but noted that the representative she was liasing with “seemed unfamiliar with the procedure of being asked for and giving out copyrights.”
Wei Fen elaborates, “I had to call him repeatedly to chase him first for the copyright license — as he had to contact India – and then for the transaction to actually be done. It seems the distributor was not used to hearing from students or carrying out such copyrights permissions transactions.” Wei Fen still retains in her email archives the detailed report of this protracted process that she had sent to the South Asian Studies Society at the time.
In September 2011, I had organized a Middle East Film Series which featured four films – Turkish, Persian, Lebanese and Israeli-Palestinian. I was informed by the FASS Dean’s Office that I too, had to obtain copyrights permissions.
Nevertheless, I informed the administrator that I was involved in the organization of another film series that the Middle East Institute at NUS had organized in July 2011, and no such copyrights permissions were required. I asked if there was perhaps another provision for campus film screenings. Yet, quite understandably and reasonably the administrator insisted upon the rule, referring me to the same Office of Student Affairs (OSA) student guidelines linked above.
Constrained by a lack of financial resources as this was a student-initiative, I continued asking around and trying my luck, sending emails to various departments and institutes to ask for any sort of information on this issue. Eventually, Ms Sylvia Yap, head librarian at NUS, replied with the following:
As far as I understand you will have no copyright issues if the audience [comprises members of the] NUS community and for educational purposes. But as soon as you have a non NUS guest in the audience you will not be covered by the educational section of the Law even if the list is limited.
Thanks to the initial lead and impetus provided by Ms Yap’s reply, the FASS Dean’s Office and subsequently the Office of Legal Affairs helped me to look into this matter and it was found that in fact, Singapore’s Copyright Act allows educational institutions to screen cinematographic films without obtaining the copyright owner’s permission provided the following conditions are met:
– It is screened by students/staff of the educational institution
– It is screened in the course of the activities of the institution
– The audience is limited to students and their parents, guardians, and siblings.
The OSA’s regulation was hence overridden and my film screening was allowed to proceed in the month of September last year (2011).
Clarifying the Regulations on Copyrights Permissions
It appears that whilst some departments (like the Centre for Language Studies) appear more familiar with the regulations concerning film screenings on campus and organize film screenings regularly, other departments like the South Asian Studies department for example are not and default upon the guidelines provided by the OSA site. Similarly, administrators also refer to the same OSA guidelines and can only advise students and departments based on the information that these guidelines offer.
Following the film series hence, I brought this issue to OSA’s attention and requested that they update their guidelines regarding film screenings as they are misleading and result in unnecessary costs for NUS departments and student societies.
To this, I was told by OSA that I was the “first” NUS student to have organized a film screening for educational purposes, and that previous NUS students have organized film screenings only for “social” purposes.
This was a rather surprising revelation, and I responded firstly that I knew of previous film screenings which were organized for educational purposes, as in the case of Taare Zameen Par, but the organizers then had still paid to obtain copyrights permissions.
Further, I noted that the OSA guidelines did not distinguish between film screenings organized for “social” purposes as opposed to film screenings organized for “educational” purposes. I suggested that the OSA should still consider making the educational provision for film screenings public knowledge.
To this, I was told by OSA that they could not publish this educational provision because this rule would be abused.
I sympathized with OSA’s concerns, and suggested again that perhaps procedures could be installed to prevent the abuse of such a rule – for example, OSA could require a professor to attest to the educational merit of the film to be screened, which would prevent abuse of the educational provision. The publication of this rule may also shape student behaviour positively – student groups may find incentives to organize film events of an educational nature once they know that these do not incur extra costs, and positive externalities would be generated as other students too benefit from such screenings.
To this, OSA finally agreed and responded that this would be done. This conversation took place on 2nd October 2011.
As of today (20th March 2012), the regulations still have not been updated. Perhaps they will be updated in time for the next academic year.
Year 4 NUS Law student Tan Yee Kiat however suggested an explanation for why the OSA provided the guidelines they did.
He stressed that the educational provision of the law is not a foolproof defence of copyrights violations. Rather, there are requirements that have to be fulfilled. For example, only NUS students, their parents, siblings and guardians are allowed to attend such film screenings. Once there is a member of the public in the film screening, the organizers would have violated copyrights laws. The film screening also has to be organized in the “course of the activities” of the institution.
He notes, “The advice/requirements given by the OSA of getting permission from the film distributors is a safer way to ensure that a copyright violation does not occur. In a sense perhaps the OSA is trying to play it safe with their guidelines.”
However, perhaps an alternative way to ensure that students do not run afoul of the law is to introduce a standard operating procedure for all film events – the OSA could require a minimum of two student ‘bouncers’ to check for matriculation cards of all participating students for example, and the supervision of a professor. All these are welcome alternatives to crippling copyrights license fees, in my opinion.
Ruling that all students who organize film screenings ought to pay copyrights permissions appears to be the “lazy” way to be on the safe side of the law, because it assumes a priori that copyrights violations are going to take place and hence levels the cost of a hypothetical violation (that has not yet been committed) on the organizing student, professor or department. This penalizes initiative and hinders the development of a lively, creative, student-driven campus culture.
I believe that students or departments who have the initiative and will to organize film screenings should also be able to manage the added responsibilities and legal requirements that come with them.
Part Two: The Ambiguous Role of the MDA
This semester, I decided to organize another film screening, this time at University Town.
I contacted the FASS Dean’s Office again to clarify that I had the “all-clear” to proceed. This time, the administrator replied encouragingly that indeed, I was exempt from having to pay copyrights permissions but I had to check if the film-to-be-screened was banned by the Media Development Authority (MDA).
The film that I was screening was not included in the database of the Board of Film Censors (BFC).
Again, I leaned upon my knowledge that the Middle East Institute at NUS had also screened 3 films previously that are (still) not included in the same database: Budrus, Caramel, and Lemon Tree. I thought, as in the case of copyrights permissions, that there was probably some other educational provision I was not aware of.
Following instructions, I dutifully wrote to the MDA which replied that the film I wanted to screen was not banned, but it was not classified either. I communicated this in full to the FASS Dean’s Office, and was then given the all-clear.
Indeed, it appears that the MDA requires all films used for “public” screenings to be classified, but are film screenings in NUS considered to be “public”?
A final year NUS law student noted that “[t]here isn’t really a single definition of “public” that can be found, but if you look at the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act, it says that “public entertainment” includes entertainment “in any place to which the public or any class of the public has access whether gratuitously or otherwise.” (s2 PEMA) That underlined part appears multiple times throughout the Act, and should be useful in telling us what “public” and “public screening” mean. ”
He/she conceded also that “[i]t has not escaped me that the “public entertainment” definition might not be very helpful to us if we want to interpret “public” since it has the word “public” inside anyway and so it might be a bit circular.”
Another NUS law student suggested that in case law, “public” would refer to activities that engage the public – a film screening within NUS however would not be considered public entertainment, especially if attendance and publicity were limited to a determinable segment of the NUS population.
However, the section 21 of the Films Act stipulates the “penalty for possession, exhibition or distribution of uncensored films”.
Yet another final-year NUS law student shared his/her personal view on the meanings of “exhibition” and “uncensored” films. My questions to him/her were: does “exhibition” necessarily mean “public exhibition”? Does “uncensored” mean — all films not classified by MDA? Or does it mean, films classified by MDA as R(A) and still retaining the bits that were supposed to be censored?
This student thought, “Exhibition is defined in s. 2 Films Act: “exhibition” includes the production of any music, speech, noise, or other sound which accompanies the projection of a film and “exhibit” shall be construed accordingly.”
The student added, “Although the title of s. 21 uses the terminology of “uncensored film”, I believe the actual meaning is contained in the substantive text of s. 21 itself: a “film without a valid certificate, approving the exhibition of the film”.”
In the age of Youtube and online social media however, how relevant is this regulation?
Would my watching a Youtube video clip be considered an “exhibition” under the definition given in the Films Act? Do Youtube clips need MDA-licensing before they are screened in lectures at NUS, which is in fact a regular occurence?
What about films made by NUS students, as in the case of The Film Guys’ Gauri, which was screened to university audiences on campus earlier this year? Would they have needed ‘valid certification’ from MDA too?
It seems to me that for section 21 to be meaningful, “exhibition” must mean some sort of “public exhibition”, which should absolve educational film screenings from the need for a ‘valid certificate’, which is why NUS research institutes like the MEI could have screened their films, and why the FASS Dean’s Office, in consultation with NUS’ Office of Legal Affairs, approved my film screening.
In addition, to my legally inexperienced mind, it seems that we have some ‘laws’ that are not really enforced – like illegal assembly laws which rule that gatherings of more than 4 people in a public space as illegal.
The hooey distinction between dormant, hibernating legal rules and actually-enforced legal rules add to the fudgey, hazy picture regarding film screening regulations on campus.
A professor who shared his/her views on this topic informally with me commented that there appeared to be a pervasive lack of awareness, albeit much of it in good faith, about what the rules governing film events on campus are and suggested that this would be a good topic for a KRC article.
Indeed, this is a grey area into which the more daring have ventured whilst the more conservative have shunned. As a student it has also been a challenging feat finding professors ‘daring’ enough to ‘sponsor’ film events. In addition, while publicizing my recent film screening via email to various departments in NUS, some senior professors would also, out of genuine concern, delay the dissemination of the publicity email to confirm that I had indeed obtained copyrights permissions, which in fact I had not, because I did not need to — another indication of the pervasive misunderstanding of film screening regulations on campus.
All this is why it is important for the OSA to update their guidelines, in order to clarify these rules and to disabuse many of our faculty members and administrators of their consternation surrounding copyrights violations. The current status quo is unsustainable, perpetuates systemic ignorance and discourages student/department proactiveness and enthusiasm. I trust that the current university administration (considering the Provost’s new blog) are invested in improving student life, are open to change and are measured enough not to react in a draconian fashion.
Apart from the sections about copyrights permissions (which have gone through the Office of Legal Affairs), I do not presume to know the exact legal picture regarding MDA and film screenings – all this article features on that front is rather amateur undergraduate “investigative” work, and the legal views expressed are only personal views by law students, not legal advice from qualified, practising lawyers.
However, NUS has its own Office of Legal Affairs with professional lawyers to help clarify these aspects for us. I understand that sometimes the impetus for change has to come from us students, and hopefully this article will go some way in motivating them to clarify film screening regulations.
After the legal picture has been clarified, it would be ideal for the administrators at OSA to then step in to design a new set of procedures to regulate film screenings on campus, in view of the clarified legal regulations. It does not make sense to prevent the abuse of the law by knowingly withholding its content from the student population and faculty members; instead, procedures can be installed to ensure that the law is being respected.
I sincerely hope that clarification of these legal aspects – copyrights permissions and MDA’s role — regarding film screenings on campus will be provided to the NUS community in time to come.
Sincere thanks to all who took the time and care to share their experiences and knowledge with me for this article, and to the few who read through the various drafts as well.