Is my Super Bowl party against the law?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 2 2007 7:12 PM

Is My Super Bowl Party Illegal?

How to watch the game without breaking the law.

A Baptist congregation in Indiana plans to cancel its Super Bowl party this weekend, after receiving a threatening letter from the National Football League. NFL officials say the church would have broken the law by charging an admission fee and by screening the game on a TV that exceeds 55 inches. On Thursday, Slate's Josh Levin promised to host a Super Bowl party with his new, gigantic television. Will he get in trouble, too?

No. The 55-inch limit cited by the NFL applies only to public showings of the Super Bowl, not private gatherings. According to U.S. copyright law, Josh is in the clear so long as he doesn't take his gigantic TV to a public place, or invite "a substantial number of persons" to his house—more than a normal circle of family and social acquaintances. If he sticks to those rules, his Super Bowl party will be a private display and won't infringe on the rights of the NFL, no matter how big his television. (Since he's hosting a private event, he could even get away with charging his guests admission.)

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Advertisement

Public displays are more tightly controlled; as a general rule, they require the consent of the league. But there is an exception, from section 110 of the copyright law: You can show the game to a big crowd, provided you're not charging people to watch it and that when you tune in, you're only using "a single receiving apparatus of a kind commonly used in private homes." (This is called the "homestyle" exemption.)

Here's where things get fuzzy. Would a 134-inch projection TV be "homestyle," as in, "of a kind commonly used in private homes?" How about a 70-inch plasma screen? Given the rapid changes in video technology and consumer spending habits, it's very difficult for the courts to make these determinations. That means the NFL lawyers have to decide for themselves when a screen is too big and it's time to send a threatening letter.

In 1998, Congress amended the copyright law to give a little bit more guidance when it comes to a class of events known as "nondramatic musical works." (This designation might include the Super Bowl's theme music and halftime show.) The new rule gave bars and restaurants the right to broadcast these works on any television that's smaller than 55 inches and hooked up to fewer than five loudspeakers. They were also allowed to use more than one television at a time, as long as each one was in a different room.

At the time, the 55-inch limit was seen as a major concession to electronics retailers and restaurants; a TV that big would never have been considered "homestyle," but the new rule made it legal for a bar to use one. In fact, the 55-inch rule put the United States in violation of an international treaty on intellectual property. (We're still paying off fines to the World Trade Organization as a result.) These days, more people have large screens in their homes, and the rule seems like less of a departure from the homestyle exemption. It also gives the NFL lawyers a handy rule of thumb: Instead of worrying over whether a certain television is "commonly used," they can just apply the 55-inch, four-loudspeaker rule across the board.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Marshall Leaffer of the Indiana University School of Law and Neil Netanel of UCLA.

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Doublex

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Politico Wonders Why Gabby Giffords Is So “Ruthless” on Gun Control

Behold
Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?