Does the NFL's copyright claim have any legal weight?

If you’ve watched a game you’ve heard it: “This telecast is copyrighted by the NFL for the private use of our audience. Any other use of this telecast or of any pictures, descriptions, or accounts of the game without the NFL’s consent, is prohibited.”

Seriously? Any descriptions or accounts of the game are prohibited? So if I want to talk about last week’s game I need the NFL’s permission?

Has the NFL ever actually tried to challenge anyone over an unauthorized description of a game?

Same questions over MLB’s “Any rebroadcast, retransmission, or account of this game, without the express written consent of Major League Baseball, is prohibited.” They don’t specifically ban “descriptions” of a game but they do specify that the permission to give an “account” of a game must be in writing.

Sure. They’ve shut down bars and churches for showing the games without permission, usually when there was a charge for viewing.

What’s copyrighted are the broadcast descriptions and accounts: the words used by the television and radio broadcasters who are officially licensed to air those accounts.

Copyright extends to artistic and creative works. It is clear that the actual broacast video is such a work, and thus charging to see it without permission is a simple breach. So to, any copying, which includes reboradcast and retransmission. That much is easy, but the OP wasn’t asking about that.

An account of the game? That is probably open to a lot of dispute. There is the doctrine of fair use, where a reasonable subset of the copyright work may be resused. But the harder one to grasp is the idea that the game as a competition is itself is a creative work. That would almost imply that it was in some sense scripted (and all that would imply.) But the notion that the game is entertainment would certainly allow that it is a creative work, and therefore subject to copyright. Thus a detailed account of the game would be no different to publishing a detailed account of a stage play or flim. The wiggle room is probably in the amount of detail. A newspaper would not need to seek permission to publish the final result. A ball by ball account on the other hand would probably be viewed as a clear breach. Somewhere in the middle is where the lawyers make their money.

I understand that the actual broadcast is copyrighted. But the claim goes far beyond that: any other use of this telecast or of any pictures, descriptions, or accounts of the game. The “or” clearly says that their claim is not limited to just the telecast itself.

I’ve heard radio hosts do essentially a play by play of an NFL game based on watching TV. They will do this just for a few plays at a critical part of the game. I assumed that is not OK with the NFL but I don’t know if they have ever tried to stop it.

Recently the NFL has restricted media outlets from showing highlights of games. I think the limit is 45 seconds per game. The networks that show the NFL like CBS, NBC, etc are not limited.

(Bolding mine.)

Nitpick, but not all copying is a breach. The US Supreme Court has held that “time shifting,” that is, recording a broadcast for later personal viewing, is permissible fair use.

As to the OP, a requirement for copyright is that the subject be captured in a “fixed medium,” whether that’s in writing, video, etc. So there’s a difference between the broadcast of the game, which is copyrighted, and the game itself as played on the field, which is not. So while the NFL may argue that the events of the game are subject to their copyright, I’d argue in response that any events that occurred in the game are freely available for full description and accounting, since they were available to the public apart from the copyrighted broadcast.

I don’t think there’s a clear definitive answer, though.

When Reagan opened the 84 Olympics ABC tried to claim other networks could not show that footage until the next day like the rest of the sports. The other networks argued that Reagan talking was not part of the sports so their restrictions did not apply. I think ABC lost that argument.

So when my co-worker said “Can you believe how Manning threw an 80 yard TD pass on the first play of the game last night?” he was violating NFL copyright as he did not have the NFLs consent to provide that description (or account) of that part of the game?

For FB the SEC is thinking of banning fans from using cell phones to twitter or use other methods to send out info during a game. That seems like it’s not enforceable.

I don’t think he was violating copyright. Looking at the copyright statute (17 U.S.C. 106), the exclusive rights conferred by copyright are the rights to do and authorize:

  1. reproduction in copies or phonorecords;
  2. preparation of derivative works;
  3. distribute copies to the public
  4. to perform the copyrighted work publicly (limited to certain kinds of works);
  5. to display the work publicly (again limited to specific types); and
  6. to perform publicly by digital audio transmission.

I don’t think your co-workers description fits into any of those categories. I also don’t see how “descriptions” or “accounts” violate copyright unless they also fall into one of those categories.

NFL Cracks Down on Super Bowl IP

A good blog article from 2004. It covers more than just NFL “Super Bowl” protection. Content appears to be still relevant.

I remember in the last few years hearing “the Big Game” on local radio commercials and figured it was due to the NFL legal department.

IP is not my field, but I think that warning actually means you can’t use their pictures, descriptions, or accounts of the game. If you watch the game, you can probably desribe what you saw in your own words.

I always thought they meant descriptions or accounts during the time the game is being played. After the game is over anything is OK.

My question would be whether the announcement means anything, or if the copyright claims are implicit.

Yes. The Nuffle is madly protective of its Big Game. Grocery store ads cautiously skirt around the Expensive Phrase. More than a few bars talk of a Superb Owl party. In the Indianapolis area, several churches had plans to show the game in the church basement on a big screen, so families wouldn’t have to be exposed to beer and smoke. The Nuffle threatened to sue if the screen was bigger than 50 inches. This is in a free showing!

The NCAA is similarly fierce about the phrase “Final Four.”

It’s been a long, long time since I took a class on copyright law (which I probably should have noted upthread – apologies), but IIRC, the copyright is automatically created upon the fixing of the subject matter in a medium, so the notice doesn’t do anything to create copyright. It does, however, arguably put the public on notice, so that no one can claim innocent copyright infringement (which might affect the damages awarded for a finding that an infringement occurred).

This is correct. You can’t copyright facts. So I say “Joe Quaterback threw a pass,” and he did, that’s a fact and it’s not subject to copyright.

But people don’t want to hear facts and scores, they want commentary, a person’s viewpoint is subject to copyright.

So how does copyright affect my own broadcast, say, from my tiny video camera smuggled into the stadium? I realize it’d be against stadium/league rules, but smuggling in a camera isn’t illegal (well, maybe in some jurisdictions, I guess).