Penalty on the Playing: NFL Cracks Down on Church Super Bowl Parties
Penalty on the Playing: NFL Cracks Down on Church Super Bowl Parties
Penalty on the Playing: NFL Cracks Down on Church Super Bowl Parties

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    Today's ran a story about how the NFL is cracking down on churches that dare to show the Super Bowl to their congregations.

    The NFL, citing the copyright in the game, has in recent years taken to sending warning letters to churches when it learned that they would plan parties centering around the Super Bowl, getting congregants in the door by showing the game on large TV screens. The letters warn that showing the game on large screens is a violation of copyright.

    This may seem like a screamingly ludicrous overreach by the NFL, like its copyright disclaimers that claim to control your ability to describe or talk about the game.

    It's not, though. At least, it's not a ludicrous stretch of copyright law. Copyright law grants the copyright owner the sole right to the public performance of their works. Of course, this would make every publicly-viewable TV a copyright infringement if there weren't hard-wired exceptions. These are listed in 17 U.S.C. §110. Section 110 is a long and complex list of public performances that aren't copyright infringements. Among them is an exception for having a TV in a public place. But if your TV gets too big, it moves outside the limits of the exception, and you're impinging upon the copyright owner's right to perform the work.

    If the churches are using massive projection screens meant for a congregation of 200, it falls outside the exception. But just because the NFL isn't making an idiotic stretch of copyright law, though, doesn't mean it's being any less idiotic. Why would it want to prevent people from watching its ad-filled, free-to-air programming? Wouldn't that increase its viewership? How many non-football fans people end up watching the Super Bowl and its ads because they're at a party?

    Large Super Bowl gatherings around big-screen sets outside of homes shrink TV ratings and can affect advertising revenue, McCarthy said. “We have no objection to churches and others hosting Super Bowl parties as long as they . . . show the game on a television of the type commonly used at home,” he said. “It is a matter of copyright law.”

    Actually, no, it's a matter of inertia and inaccurate ways of measuring advertising revenue. Or, to rephrase, it's all about money. The NFL is hardly hamstrung by copyright law. Copyright law, after all, works by giving control to the copyright owner, who is free to grant any number and type of licenses to users. It would be a simple matter for the NFL to send those churches reasonably-priced license offers as lawyergrams. It'd also be just as easy to authorize free viewing of the Super Bowl on whatever size screen for noncommercial uses. After all, exactly how much money are they expecting to gather from these churches?

    As for the ratings argument, that makes little to no sense. Unless the congregation contains Nielsen households, measurement of viewership shouldn't change. And whose fault is it that the NFL and advertisers can't accurately measure the ways in which people want to watch the game? If your measurement model doesn't fit actual viewing habits, then you change that model—you don't use copyright law to bludgeon viewers to match your outdated sampling methods.