We first wrote about this issue in 2014, but the only known video recording of the very first Super Bowl only exists
because a fan taped the TV broadcast, back in 1967. Now, as we're about to have the 50th Super Bowl, the fight has not only continued, but according to a NY Times article, the fight has been getting nastier
That NYT article also, for the first time, names the guy who has the tape: Troy Haupt, whose father went into his office and recorded (most) of the game, believing such a tape might be valuable some day. For the past few years, all anyone knew was that a lawyer named Steve Harwood claimed to represent an anonymous client whose father had taped the game. The game itself had been shown on both CBS and NBC, but back in those days, archiving stuff wasn't a big deal, and neither broadcaster kept a copy of the tape. It wasn't that long before people realized that might be a mistake and by then there was nothing left (as far as anyone knew), and many argued that it was one of the great "lost treasures."
It was only after a 2005 Sports Illustrated article
that talked about the fact that the video was lost, that a friend had reminded Haupt of the video in his mother's attic. And, then, of course, came the copyright fight. The NFL (as it has a habit of doing) insisted that it, and it alone, held the copyright on the video, and Haupt would be infringing on its copyright if he tried to do anything with the video. Of course, Haupt and his lawyer still held the physical tape (which they had restored by the Paley Center, and stored in a place to keep it safe). And thus, we get to the difference between the copyright on the content, and the ownership of the physical item.
Haupt asked the NFL for $1 million for the tape -- the price that Sports Illustrated had estimated such a tape might be worth. The NFL offered $30,000. And then there was a stalemate, with neither side budging for years, and the NFL constantly threatening a copyright lawsuit should Haupt do anything with the tape. With the 50th anniversary, Haupt thought that maybe the NFL would finally be willing to deal... but instead, the NFL showed a totally different video of Super Bowl 1
that was not the video of the actual broadcast. Instead, they went out and found a large number of "clips" from other sources, and patched it all together, claiming it's the entire game, even if it appears really disjointed.
Apparently, now that the NFL (which makes billions) has its "tape," it wants to be even more ridiculously petty towards Haupt. According to the NY Times:
And last week, Haupt was angry about another turn in the dispute. CBS backed out of a plan to interview him for a Super Bowl pregame segment that would have used a few minutes from the game. It had agreed to pay him $25,000 and give him two tickets to the Super Bowl. A producer was preparing to watch a restored, digital copy of the game at the Paley Center. A crew was ready to go to Manteo. He was going to tell his story, and perhaps the league would listen.
“It was my right to tell my story, and they were paying me for it,” Haupt said.
But according to his lawyer, Steve Harwood, the deal collapsed when he was told that the N.F.L. had ordered CBS not to pay him.
Just when you think the NFL can't get more petty, it does exactly that.
Even more bizarre is that according to the NY Times, the NFL is insisting that Haupt isn't even allowed to sell the physical tape to someone else:
Haupt owns the recording but not its content, which belongs to the N.F.L. If the league refuses to buy it, he cannot sell the tapes to a third party, like CBS or a collector who would like to own a piece of sports history that was believed to be lost. He would like to persuade the league to sell the tapes jointly and donate some of the proceeds to their favorite charities.....
This is bullshit, and hopefully Haupt's lawyer has explained to both Haupt and the NFL that this is bullshit. The First Sale Doctrine still exists in the US, and it's the reason that you can sell a copy of a physical book or painting without first getting permission from the copyright holder. The First Sale Doctrine separates the copyright from the tangible thing. So he absolutely can sell the tape, despite what the league and the article claim. Updated update
: So I had originally crossed out this paragraph and thought maybe I'd gone too far with it, after someone pointed out that First Sale might not apply, because the first copy wasn't legally purchased. But as a few others have commented (both below and in email), that may not matter. The question is whether the work was "lawfully made" under the Copyright Act... and we know that taping video off the TV is considered okay under the Supreme Court's Betamax ruling. Thus, the first sale right could very well apply here.
But, even then, the NFL seems to make bogus copyfraud arguments, saying that if he does sell the tape, and the contents leak somehow, Haupt would be liable for any such release.
But that is unlikely to happen. A letter from the league to Harwood last year provided a sharp warning to Haupt. “Since you have already indicated that your client is exploring opportunities for exploitation of the N.F.L.’s Super Bowl I copyrighted footage with yet-unidentified third parties,” Dolores DiBella, a league counsel, wrote, “please be aware that any resulting copyright infringement will be considered intentional, subjecting your client and those parties to injunctive relief and special damages, among other remedies.”
Again, it's not clear that this is true. The purchasing party
may very well be liable for any infringement that results, but Haupt should be in the clear once it's sold, so long as there's no evidence that the sale was simply a sham to get the video released. Bizarrely, the NY Times quotes a copyright law professor claiming that the NFL is actually correct here:
The law favors the league, said Jodi Balsam, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.
“What the league technically has is a property right in the game information and they are the only ones who can profit from that,” said Balsam, a former N.F.L. lawyer.
As David Post notes at the Washington Post, Professor Balsam is either woefully misinformed or was misquoted
, because of course, you don't get to copyright "game information" at all. Merely the specific expression which was the broadcast. In fact, cases revolving around data (such as scores) and factual information (such as names and stats) have come down quite clearly saying that the league does not
own "game information."
And I respectfully suggest that Prof. Balsam gets her copyright law wrong (or was misquoted) when she says that “the law favors the league” and that “the league technically has is a property right in the game information and they are the only ones who can profit from that.” The league doesn’t have a property right in “the game information” at all. [There’s another case squarely on point that discredits this idea, too — NBA v. Motorola from the Second Circuit (105 F.3d 842, 1997)]. The “game information” — who won, who lost, how many passes Bart Starr threw, how many time Kansas City ran running plays, the sequence of plays that led to Green Bay’s final touchdown, etc. etc. etc.] — is not protected by copyright at all; only the broadcast is protected. And there is nothing in copyright law that says that only the NFL can “profit” from that — Haupt is entitled to get as much money from selling his copy as he can.
There's also a separate issue that I haven't seen reported anywhere, which seems like it should be relevant. The game was in 1967, which was under the 1909 Copyright Act, which required registration ("formalities") in order to get the copyright. And, while it's quite likely that CBS and NBC, who both broadcast the game, likely had a deal in place with the NFL where the NFL retained the copyright, there's a question of whether or not the NFL actually did register that copyright in the first place. It's entirely possible that, given the fact that no one actually thought it was worth keeping a copy of the video, that similarly no one thought it was worth it to register the copyright.
And that leads us to the final point. The NFL itself apparently couldn't have been bothered to keep a copy of the video of the game itself, which is what makes the resulting situation particularly egregious and ridiculous. To claim ownership over the thing that you totally neglected to the point that you thought no longer existed seems ridiculous. It also raises the question of whether the NFL abandoned the copyright, even if it did register it. Copyright abandonment is a defense that someone accused of infringement can make, arguing that the copyright holder deliberately abandoned the work (leaving it in the public domain). Abandonment can be tough to show, however, since it requires showing that the copyright holder intended
to abandon the copyright and performed an "overt act" to make it happen. You can argue that the intent was there in the failure to keep a single damn copy -- but is that an overt act? Usually the "overt act" is seen as something like a declaration that the work is in the public domain. That obviously doesn't exist here.
But, still, hopefully in the end people can recognize just how messed up copyright law is that it would reach this kind of stalemate, in which the public is deprived of such a historic event.