This week’s lead story brought a fair amount of mail from the Premium subscribers, many of whom were surprised by my take on the story. Here it is:
Thou Shalt Not
The Fall Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Ind., announced plans to set up a video projector to show the Super Bowl to attract parishioners to church on Sunday instead of staying home to watch the game. Super Bowl Fever was strong in Indianapolis, thanks to the home team being in the game to smite thy enemies, the Chicago Bears. But the National Football League spotted the announcement on the church’s web site, and sent a letter demanding they cancel the showing since per copyright law, the game may only be shown on one TV per location, and the screen must be limited to 55 inches. “We have contracts with our [TV] networks to provide free over-the-air television for people at home,” said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. “Out-of-home viewing is not measured by Nielsen,” and therefore cannot be measured for ratings purposes. The NFL exempts bars from the rule, but said it won’t extend that to churches. Fall Creek Baptist pastor John Newland said he’d respect the NFL’s copyright, but many other churches vowed to hold similar events despite the NFL’s legal stance. (Indianapolis Star) …Right — that pesky Commandment against stealing is surely optional.
On the one hand, we have churches trying to compete with a cultural phenomenon, and on the other hand we have the corporate embodiment of large bands of burly ruffians — the National Football League.
It’s easy to make corporate thuggery look stupid, and indeed I think the story did just that, because the NFL was, indeed, stupid in how it handled the perceived problem. It’s harder to point out the flaws in the “good guys” — but that’s what I endeavored to do in the story. But let’s start with a couple of letters on the subject:
Being pretty much of an agnostic I’m certainly not a pulpit pounder for religion. I generally try to look at the practical and reasonable side of things when considering an issue regardless of the topic. After reading your stuff for so long, and enjoying it, I was surprised at your tagline for this article. I thought you would have come out on the other side. If the NFL is so worried about Nielsen Ratings why exempt bars? The number of churches that would be showing the Super Bowl certainly pales in comparison to the number of bars that would do it. I guess they have the right to do what they did but at least they should come up with something better than Nielsen Ratings as a reason. Can you possibly imagine that next year they would not show the Super Bowl because the ratings went down due to people going to church to watch it? —Ralph, New York
Ralph, in addition to “keep them guessing,” churches are known for their hard and fast rules — and dire consequences — unless the rules inconvenience them. I presume you know the word for that?
Sure the NFL is ridiculous. And I painted them that way clearly. No one gets off clean here — except the churches which follow their own dictates.
The news reports I saw on several churches were that they *did* conform to the NFL copyright. There were two tactics: 1. take off the name “super bowl”, 2. measure the screen exactly to 55 inches. I think the NFL …umm… dropped the ball on this one. If they truly own the copyright, they can license it for $1 to any church that wants to do this. They could have asked any church to send a check, dated on or before the super bowl, to the NFL, on their honor. I mean, if you cannot trust a church, who can you trust? I think the NFL ended up with a black eye on this one, so I suspect you might have been a bit harsh. —Bandit, New Mexico
We differ on my harshness, but agree the NFL got a black eye over this. It’s hardly unexpected that for-profit corporations will do their best to maximize their profits. Ideally, they balance their interests with their images, and indeed the NFL took a broadside sack by a cheerleader on this one.
Last, Eric in Pennsylvania:
I have to wonder, did you struggle deciding which way to go on this story? I think your position was fine, but there do seem to be elements of irrational behavior on both sides, and I imagine some folks will come down on you for not criticizing the NFL’s ‘bars OK, church no way’ position.
No, there was no struggle whatever. The hypocrisy of “doing what’s right” unless it thwarts the churches’ plans was just too obvious to overlook. How can a church expect its members to do the right thing if they don’t provide examples of that themselves?
But let’s not let the NFL off too easy. The theft of “intellectual property” — like a copyrighted article (or telecast!) is, in a very real sense, theft. “But it doesn’t cost the NFL any money!” is the usual retort.
Even if that was true (and it isn’t), that doesn’t matter! Theft is theft, and it’s not up to the thief to decide who’s hurt by it. I am hurt significantly by people who steal my stories, publishing them on their blogs or elsewhere. I’ve gone after some of them, and won thousands of dollars in compensation from it. And I have several other infringers in my target sights. The law is on my side, as well as the NFL’s.
But I think the NFL way overstated things. It’s “illegal” to have more than one TV in any one venue? Does that mean you can’t have your bedroom TV on if your wife is watching it in the kitchen?
It’s “illegal” to watch the game on a TV that’s greater than 55 inches across? Does that mean you better return that 60-incher to Circuit City before the Copyright Cops crash through your den door? I’ll bet copyright law is silent on both issues.
Beside the law, there’s the image problem the NFL brought upon itself with its ridiculous policy of exempting bars, but not churches. Some Christian news sources announced that, just before the Super Bowl, the NFL issued a “sweeping” exemption for churches as long as they didn’t charge admission, but I still haven’t been able to find anything official to confirm that — the “news” section of NFL.com is silent on the subject.
Hard to Know For Sure
“I spent time trying to research the NFL site and the Super Bowl site to find what the copyright laws were,” said the Rev. Tom Rives of the Carrollwood Baptist Church in Tampa, Fla. “They do not have them posted anywhere. I had a lawyer in my church to go through all the things that he could find, because I do not want to stand in my pulpit and say, ‘Come do something tonight that’s against the law.’ I won’t do that.”
THAT is the sort of position I expected churches to take, and why I chastised other pastors for doing the opposite. Rives relied on the news of “It’s OK if no admission fee is charged” and went on with his party, a 20-year tradition at his church. But it’s still unclear whether he was legally in the right. (Source no longer online.)
There’s a Significant Update on this story — significant enough that it warrants its own post.
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