Info/Law on Super Bowl Sunday

There is a Super Bowl tie-in to everything from fighting poverty and hunger to accelerating the downward spiral of Kevin Federline’s career. Here at Info/Law we don’t even have to stretch for our connection.

This week the NFL cracked down on churches holding Super Bowl viewing parties because, the league said, such “mass out-of-home viewing” clearly violates copyright and trademark law. Slate‘s “Explainer” provides a decent plain-English explanation of the NFL’s view of the law here.

This sounds a lot like the short-sightedness of other zealous IP claims made by entertainment businesses (like this and this, to take just a couple of recent examples from a rich history). It’s hard to imagine these claims are worthwhile given the resulting bad PR. Arguably, this one is even more bone-headed for at least three reasons:

  1. The “homestyle exception” under section 110(5)(A) probably allows the churches to show the game on equipment “of a kind commonly used in private homes” (provided they don’t charge admission — some of them were planning to do so, which is a separate issue). The NFL is telling churches (and newspapers are printing as true) that screens cannot be bigger than 55 inches. But the 55-inch limit the NFL is citing to the churches as, ahem, gospel, is from a different section of the law (section 110(5)(B)) that I read as dealing with TVs in commercial establishments (as the conference report suggests). The assertion that the bright-line 55-inch rule from subsection “B” transfers to the general “commonly used in private homes” standard under subsection “A” is wishful thinking. Have you been to Circuit City lately? Let’s just say that screens a lot bigger than 55 inches sell quite briskly to private homeowners, and “homestyle” screens will continue to grow in the near future. If you can watch the game on a 70 63-inch plasma at Uncle Charley’s, you probably can do it at Fall Creek Baptist Church too. (Maybe Congress will rewrite subsection “A”, but there it is for now.)
  2. The league’s claim that the NFL’s licensed trademark in “SUPER BOWL” prevents a church from announcing its “Super Bowl viewing party” is ridiculous. Trademark fair use is murky, but not that murky. When you want to refer to a company, a place, or an event, and the only realistic way to do it is by using a trademark, you are not infringing — especially where, as here, there is no danger of any relevant confusion by customers. (Some courts have adopted a doctrine of “nominative fair use” to deal specifically with such situations, but even a court that has not adopted the doctrine would probably allow uses that are purely “nominative” — that is, using the trademark only to refer to the trademarked thing.)
  3. As a former Capitol Hill staffer, I predict that the very next day Congress is in session, at least one legislator will introduce a bill explicitly exempting churches from liability in homestyle-like settings. There is already a special exemption for “performance of a nondramatic literary or musical work … or display of a work, in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly.” (That’s section 110(3).) Maybe copyright-holders will prevent enactment of such a bill — although there is a pretty strong lobby on the other side of this one. Either way, by picking on such a sympathetic supposed infringer, the NFL is just begging for Congress to reopen the whole issue of “mass out-of-home viewing” and sports, and to do so ill-disposed to the league.

I am dismayed (but not surprised) to see the news media report this story and include only the NFL’s self-serving legal interpretation. I think that as long as churches don’t charge admission and don’t use a screen bigger than one that might be found in a neighboring McMansion, then these gatherings are probably legal. I hope plenty of churches ignore the NFL’s bluster and go ahead with their plans.

3 Responses to “Info/Law on Super Bowl Sunday”

  1. […] The passing of the Reverend Jerry Falwell will no doubt be a cause for sincere mourning among a set of individuals that, as it happens, does not include me. But on the principle that the three of us can find an Info/Law angle on practically anything (from the Super Bowl to baby naming to perfume to a rap about tax preparation software), it’s worth noting that Reverend Falwell’s legacy includes a fair amount of info/law jurisprudence — some of it surprisingly friendly towards consumers and users of digital content. […]

  2. […] Info/Law » Info/Law on Super Bowl Sunday […]

  3. […] blog has reported before on the efforts of the NFL, both in 2007 and in 2008, to threaten churches that planned to hold Super Bowl viewing parties. The league […]