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Tonight’s Super Bowl is expected to set record viewership numbers. People will be tuning in across the country, whether it’s to see the game itself or for the parties, food, halftime show, or commercials. Many people will host Super Bowl parties at their home or at a restaurant or bar. We’ve all heard the familiar warning near the end of a broadcasted NFL game: “This telecast is copyrighted by the NFL for the private use of our audience. Any other use of this telecast or any pictures, descriptions, or accounts of the game without the NFL’s consent is prohibited.” Have you ever wondered whether your broadcasting of the Big Game in your home, workplace, church, bar or restaurant is an illegal copyright infringement?

A copyright gives its owner the exclusive right to use, sell, or license original works that are created by the owner and are expressed through any artistic medium of expression, including television. See Copyright Act, 17 USCS §§ 101, 106. The NFL is the original creator of NFL football and holds a copyright to its reproduction. This is valuable intellectual property that is fiercely protected by the NFL. The league has been known to threaten owners of public gathering places with copyright infringement lawsuits if the league suspects a copyright violation has occurred or will occur.

Fortunately, you are most likely not violating any copyright laws by hosting a home viewing party. Generally, anyone who wants to legally broadcast copyrighted material to the public must purchase a license from the NFL. But the key is public display; you do not have to worry about infringing the NFL’s copyright by watching it at home with friends and family. A “public” display of a copyrighted sports event happens when a substantial number of persons outside a normal circle of family or social acquaintances gather anywhere to watch the game on TV. See 17 U.S.C. § 101. Therefore, if you display the game at home with friends and family, it is extremely likely that you are not violating the NFL’s copyright. However, a showing at a public gathering can be a violation of the Copyright Act even if admission is not charged. This includes public displays of a sporting event at workplaces, private clubs, homes and even churches. Yes, you heard right, the NFL has threatened to sue churches for playing NFL games publicly on big screens because it is a violation of the Copyright Act. See “NFL Pulls Plug on Big-Screen Church Parties for Super Bowl,” Washington Post, Salmon, Jaqueline, February 2, 2008. Readers should note that uploading a clip of the Super Bowl or any NFL game on YouTube is probably a copyright infringement unless you have a license from the NFL.

There are two important exceptions in the Copyright Act that allow businesses to broadcast games publicly. First, restaurants and bars may display a broadcasted sporting event without a license, but only if the establishment has less than 3,750 square feet of space (not including the parking lot) or if it: has more than 3,750 square feet of space, has no more than 4 TV’s playing the game, has no more than one TV in any room, no TV’s are over 55 inches, and the audio is played on no more than 6 speakers, with no more than 4 speakers in any one room of the establishment. See §110(5)(B).

Other businesses than bars and restaurants may display a copyrighted sporting event on television to the public without a license if the business has less than 2,000 square feet of space, not including the parking lot. See 17 U.S.C. §110(5)(B). Businesses that have 2,000 square feet of space or more may only show a copyrighted sporting event without a license if it is done on 4 or less home-sized TV’s, only one TV is located in each room of the business’s facility, each TV is 55 inches or smaller diagonally, and the audio is broadcasted on 6 or less speakers, with no more than 4 speakers in any one room. See §110(5)(B).

Super Bowl party hosts should keep these copyright restrictions in mind this evening. Fortunately, the vast majority of home viewing parties will not run afoul of copyright laws. No matter who you are rooting for to win tonight, the NFL will be the biggest winner, especially if viewers turn out in record numbers as expected.