Residential Holiday Light Shows | Is That Legal

Christmas Lights by Luke Jones from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Christmas Lights by Luke Jones from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A friend sent a link to this article on Gawker about Kevin Judd of Riverside, California who had an awesome Halloween light show that was synchronized to music like Gangham Style . . . at least he did until his HOA shut him down. My friend asked if displays like this are otherwise legal.

To be clear, I’m not a scrooge when it comes to these types of light displays. I appreciate the time, effort, creativity, and innovation that goes into putting one of these amazing shows together. When I was a law student, watching the video of a light show to David Foster’s Carol of the Bells was the only thing that could make me smile while I was studying for finals.

Despite my enjoyment of these light shows, there could be legal issues related to them. The main one I see is copyright infringement. Whoever owns the copyright in a song gets to control where the music is performed. When you buy a song on iTunes, it’s for personal enjoyment, not for public performances. If anyone who created this type of light show, especially if it’s they’re making money from it, they should get a license to play it.

However, I wonder if these light shows qualify as a permissible use under fair use. (Fair use protects the use and transformation of others’ work to create new works, as long as you’re not interfering with artists’ ability to benefit from creating their original art.) My mnemonic device for the fair use factors is PAIN:

  • Purpose: Definitely transformative and noncommercial if you’re not charging people to watch it.
  • Amount Used: The whole song is typically used, but that makes sense given the circumstances.
  • Impact on the market: Attending a light show will likely not be a replacement for someone who only wants to listen to the music.
  • Nature of the Works: Integrating an audio file into a larger multimedia performance.

If someone is doing a light show on their home without charging a fee, there may be a decent argument that what they’re doing is protected by fair use. To date, I have no heard of a record label ordering someone to stop using their music in a holiday display on a home. I suspect they appreciate the free advertising and they don’t want to be seen as the mean rich record label that shut down the light show that made children happy.

Even though using music in a light show may be legal under copyright under fair use or a license, there may be other legal implications like HOA rules, city noise and/or light ordinances, and causing traffic problems. If you want to chat about the legal issues related to your holiday display, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

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