yellow one-story school building
Some PTA members at Emerson Elementary were surprised to hear from Disney’s licensing agency after they hosted a Lion King screening. Photo: Google Maps

You might think the standard $15 movie ticket these days is outrageously expensive.

But some parents in Berkeley are on the hook for $250 for screening the Disney classic The Lion King at a PTA fundraiser in November.

On Thursday, Movie Licensing USA, the agency with whom Walt Disney and other major film studios contract, contacted the Emerson Elementary School PTA and the school’s principal to warn them the event had violated copyright law. The email said the company had “received an alert” about the movie night, which was hosted by the Emerson Dads Club.

“If a movie is shown for any entertainment reason — even in the classroom, it is required by law that the school obtains a Public Performance license,” Corey Goellner, copyright licensing manager, told the recipients.

Such a single-use permit costs $250, she said, or schools can pay $536 for an annual license.

The notice reportedly startled some of the Forest Avenue school’s parents — including Berkeley City Councilwoman Lori Droste, whose two children attend Emerson.

In a Friday morning Twitter thread that’s been shared numerous times, Droste blasted the mega-corporation for going after a public elementary school.

“Disney wants $250 when we are struggling to pay our teachers and spending per pupil is laughable?” she wrote.

Reached by phone, Goellner said it boils down to a simple violation of basic copyright law.

“We are a sole source for licensing for major motion picture studios,” she said. “Each studio has their own copyright department. They check up with us to make sure schools have the proper licensing. We’re responsible for checking to make sure their movies are protected, basically.”

She declined to say how Disney learned about the Emerson screening. (The movie night, where $15 was a suggested but not required entrance fee, according to organizers, was advertised on Eventbrite in the fall.)

Asked several times how the agency typically finds out about violations, Goellner ultimately said, “We do not seek these out, but we are asked to follow up on them. We work on studios’ behalves.”

Goellner said school librarians and technology directors are usually aware of the rules, and often approach Movie Licensing USA hoping to secure a permit. She said 25,000 schools across the country have those licenses, but Washington Elementary is the only BUSD school with an annual license. (The license applies to the whole school site, allowing PTAs to use it as well, even though they’re independent organizations, she said.)

Berkeleyside has asked BUSD for more information on its policies and practices around movie screenings and licenses. However, permission is only necessary when movies are shown purely for entertainment.

“A screening in a classsroom for educational purposes typically does not require a copyright license,” Goellner said. 

In an email to Berkeleyside, Trish McDermott, BUSD spokeswoman, said Emerson “was not aware they needed to obtain special permission to show the film. Principal [Jana] Holmes is working with the PTA and the district office to resolve any issues surrounding the children’s viewing of the film.”

Berkeleyside has reached out to the Emerson PTA as well. In Berkeley PTAs generally fund school enrichment programs and academic support positions.

Goellner said her company has an agreement with the California State PTA, wherein the agency subsidizes some PTA groups’ licenses.

Back on Twitter, Droste, along with the Berkeley School Board’s Ty Alper, argued that it’s Disney that owes the schools money — not the other way around.

In 1978, Proposition 13 capped residential and commercial property tax increases, generating significantly less revenue for schools across the state. In November, California voters will decide whether to reform the commercial portion of the law, allowing more tax increases for large companies that own property. The Berkeley officials said Disney is among the corporate giants that have benefited from the existing law.

“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,” the councilwoman tweeted.

Movie Licensing USA represents many entertainment studios, but Disney in particular is notorious for being litigious and protective of its intellectual property. Schools have been targets of that protectiveness in the past, including the famous case in the 1980s when the company demanded the removal of murals depicting its characters on a trio of Florida daycare centers.

This story was updated after publication with new information. 

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...