Tiffany Theater owners Stuart Fox and Andrew Solomon are shaking their heads. They never intended to break the law. They didn’t know they would be stepping on toes. What they thought they were doing is providing a place for Husker fans to don their red, gather and cheer on the team with their friends.
It seems the Big 10 Conference thought otherwise.
Last Friday, Fox received a ‘Cease and Desist’ letter from Mayer and Brown, the Big 10s legal counsel, that spelled out the conditions.
“Please be advised that these showings violate the Conference’s intellectual property rights,” the letter read, after establishing Mayer and Brown’s relationship with the Big 10 Conference, and their right to send the letter. The letter also placed into words, Tiffany Theater’s chances of showing any games in the future.
“ ... The Conference is not interested in licensing any of its copyrighted broadcasts to Tiffany Theater. Consequently, we demand that you immediately cease and desist showing all conference sporting events ... ”
The letter stated that the conference has actively enforced its rights against similar ‘unauthorized’ broadcasts of Big 10 sporting events against other movie theaters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa.
In stating their demands, the letter also raised questions, said Fox.
“When is it legal? Are sports bars in violation? What about a non-profit who has a tailgate party?
“I received a phone call Monday and was asked if we would voluntarily stop showing the broadcasts and all I did was ask for a set of the rules,” Fox said, and they said they would send them to him. When Friday’s mail arrived that is what he expected. The Cease and Desist letter caught them off guard.
“We never intended to break the law. We weren’t charging admission. We weren’t doing it as a money maker. We were doing it for the community,” he said.
Solomon said what they were doing was providing a place for Husker fans to watch the game in a family, alcohol free, environment.
Last year, when Nebraska was part of the Big 12, the Theater paid for the rights to show the game through Pay-Per-View. That option isn’t available this year as the games are shown either on ABC, or on the Big 10 network.
Chris Anderson, a media relations specialist with the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, said that things are different under the Big 10. She explained that there are a lot more rules to follow this year, even for the University.
“We are obligated to follow the same set of rules. UNL has to seek permission as well. We are required to follow the Big 10 rules. We do not own the rights to the games, the Big 10 Network owns those rights.”
She said they can’t even show a baseball scrimmage without their permission.
Anderson said they were sent a copy of the letter issued to Tiffany Theater and that to the best of her knowledge, Tiffany Theater is the only Nebraska establishment to have been cited.
Big 10 Deputy Commissioner Brad Traviolia, said he fully expected there to be a learning curve the first year a school is in the conference.
He said the Big 10 network and ABC have reached a deal with various satellite companies, and that there is a deal in place with the sports bars. The law, however archaic it is, he said, limits the square footage of the establishment and the size of the screen which can show the games without a written contract.
“Movie theaters do not fit within those requirements,” he said. “We support the business model of the distributors.”
When asked if a non-profit could show the game, he said that the request would be considered on a case-by-case basis, and that at present, no request has been granted.
Letters such as the one sent to Tiffany are sent out whenever a violation is brought to their attention.
“It’s a matter of the need to educate,” he said.
The letter received by the Broken Bow’s theater explained that the United States Copyright Act prohibits the unauthorized public performance of a copyrighted work, which includes television broadcasts, and that there is an exception to this rule for certain establishments other than food service or drinking establishments if the establishment is less than 2,000 square feet and the screen size is no greater that 55 inches.
The law firm said they would not comment when asked for a more detailed explanation of the law, but a call to the University School of Journalism was more productive.
Journalism professor Dr. Larry Walklin explained that the Big 10 is its own network which owns the rights to athletic performances played by Big 10 schools, and that these same schools share in revenue generated by the Big 10 Network equally.
“There is big money in college athletics. Universities could not afford to have these programs without television money.” he said,
One of the draws for the University joining the Big 10 was the revenue the television broadcasts would generate.
The Big 10 Network is owned partially by the Fox Network, he explained, no relation to the Fox who is co-ownership at the Theatre. And yes, he too had heard about the letter.
Copyrights are a tricky thing, he explained, going on to say that when bands perform in the Rose Bowl Parade, they are given a list of what they can and cannot play because of coyright regulations.
“It’s fairly safe to have them play their school songs, because they usually own the right to the material.”
For Tiffany Theater it was never a matter of intentionally breaking the law.
“We want to follow the rules,” said Stuart Fox. “We just need to know what the rules are.”