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04E sports

Where to Look in the Law

1909 Act: Not subsumed in any category of eligible work
1947 Act: Not subsumed in any category of eligible work
1976 Act: see notes under “Other Information”

NOTE: Coverage of sports events can be copyrighted even when the sport itself could’t be.  Read the summaries of the cited cases.

What the Courts Ruled


Seltzer vs Sunbrock

D.C.,S.D.Cal. (3-8-1938) ¤ 22 F.Supp. 621.

The Court judged whether the defendant had infringed plaintiff Seltzer’s idea as expressed in Seltzer’s copyrighted pamphlets that describe a game:

“Basically, these pamphlets have no fixed plot or story.  There are no distinct characters, possessing individual personalities or names, or even personifying, as did characters in the old morality plays, generalized virtues or vices.  All we have here is a set of regulations for running a race.  The fact that the exposition of the rules may be so artfully done as to constitute a literary masterpiece is no reason for considering the work other than as a mere rule book.  The mere fact that the race as staged is entertaining or thrilling or arouses great excitement cannot in itself change the essential nature of the composition so as to make it a drama.  Accordingly, this court feels that plaintiff’s pamphlets, lacking as they do at least one essential element of a true drama—a definite story structure—are not entitled to that protection under the Copyright Act designed and reserved for bona fide dramatic compositions.”

The Court rejected the view that “… in the idea of staging a purportedly transcontinental roller-skating race, Seltzer had a ‘distinctive treatment of a theme’ which ought to be protected by copyright law.  Such an argument would be valid only if the theme were an essential part of a dramatic composition.  Manifestly, such reasoning cannot successfully be applied to a game or race.  Furthermore, plaintiffs’ contention cannot prevail, resting as it must on … ample evidence of the use by both sides of common source material in the public domain, and which raises very grave questions as the originality of the alleged copyrighted ideas.  Were plaintiffs’ contention to prevail in this case, might not the author of a copyrighted novel, containing a vivid and colorful description of one of the earlier football games, enjoin any future student body from employing the customary devices and patterns of the modern rooting section?  As every enthusiast knows, the waving of pom-poms, the quickly shifting color patters, the intermission stunts, and in fact most of the much cherished atmosphere of college football has been associated with regattas, folk festivals, and outdoor sports since time immemorial… .  Plaintiffs’ sources are just as obvious, and his originality almost as questionable, as would be that such a football-minded novelist.”

(A quotation from the decision not relevant to the facts of the case is under facts not copyrightable.)


Cases Summarized in Other Sections

National Football League and St. Louis Football Cardinals, Inc., vs McBee & Bruno’s [and four other restauranteurs] (launch this) concerns satellite reception of a football that had been blacked-out on local television.

Howard Loeb vs A.L. Turner and Trinity Broadcasting Corporation (launch this) concerns two different radio stations which broadcast the same car races.

Other Information


“Sports events are not ‘authored’ in any common sense of the word… .

“Indeed, prior to 1976, there was even doubt that broadcasts describing or depicting such events, which have a far stronger case for copyrightability than the events themselves, were entitled to copyright protection.  Indeed, as described in the next subsection of this opinion, Congress found it necessary to extend such protection to recorded broadcasts of live events.  The fact that Congress did not extend such protection to the events themselves confirms our view that the district court correctly held that appellants were not infringing a copyright in the NBA games.

“As noted, recorded broadcasts of NBA games — as opposed to the games themselves — are now entitled to copyright protection.  The Copyright Act was amended in 1976 specifically to insure that simultaneously-recorded transmissions of live performances and sporting events would meet the Act’s requirement that the original work of authorship be ‘fixed in any tangible medium of expression.’…”   (from the decision to The National Basketball Association v. Motorola, Inc., USCA 2nd Cir. (1-30-1997), 105 F.3d 841)




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