Monday, February 01, 2010

Will your big-screen Super Bowl party violate copyright law?

Ars Technica: "An offhand comment the other day by a friend caught my attention—"Did you know that you can't watch the Super Bowl on a TV screen larger than 55 inches? Yeah, it's right there in the law."
With the Colts and Saints set to do battle in Super Bowl XLIV, this seemed worth looking into as a public service. Could it be that some of those giant flat panel TV sets now finding their way into US living rooms are actually violating copyright law?
Yes, it's in the law—sort of
Copyright law has a huge range of exemptions (like face-to-face classroom teaching), limitations (like fair use), and compulsory licensing schemes (like paying songwriters when you perform a cover version of a tune). Some are well known, but most are of interest only to specialists.
US Code Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 110 is called "Limitations on exclusive rights: exemption of certain performances and displays," and it lays out 12 of these exemptions to copyright restrictions. Are 55+ inch TVs mentioned specifically? They certainly are.
TV broadcasts and movie showings can only be displayed so long as "no such audiovisual device has a diagonal screen size greater than 55 inches, and any audio portion of the performance or display is communicated by means of a total of not more than 6 loudspeakers." So there it is in black and white—a ban on big TVs!
Sort of. While my friend was right about what's contained in the law, it's important to put the words in context. In this case, the context is exemption number five, which deals with TVs. The exemption opens by saying that turning on a TV set in one's house does not incur any sort of "public performance" liability under copyright law. So long as you're using a set that can reasonably be described as "a single receiving apparatus of a kind commonly used in private homes," you're in the clear.
(Okay, not completely. You cannot make a "direct charge" to "see or hear the transmission," though you can apparently ask friends to cover the cost of food and drink. You also cannot further transmit the broadcast "to the public," so diverting a live video stream onto the Internet and streaming it to the world is right out. Otherwise, you're fine.)"

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