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Find Sports in Copyright

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When you think of sports and creativity, you might think of cool moves on the field, or maybe you think of music, books, photos, or movies about a sport, team, or famous athlete. While athletic moves or goal celebrations are creative, they are not protected by copyright law. According to section 805.5(B)(3) of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Practices, Third Edition, “The Office cannot register claims to copyright in athletic activities or competitive maneuvers as such, because they do not constitute copyrightable subject matter under section 102(a)(4) of the Copyright Act.” Section 805.5(B)(3) also states that football plays, slam dunking maneuvers, and skateboarding or snowboarding activities are not protected by copyright.

Other works inspired by sports, however, may be protected by copyright. Photographers capture athletic events and tell stories without words. One famous picture showed Boston Marathon race director Jock Semple trying to physically remove Kathrine Switzer—a registered runner—from the 1967 race because women weren’t allowed to run it. Boston Traveler photographer Harry Trask captured the moment, and his photo still serves as an inspiration to female runners, as does Switzer’s book about the event.

Many athletic events have inspired creativity in movies registered for copyright. Remember the Titans took the story of integrating the T.C. Williams High School football team and turned it into a Hollywood hit, adding elements of creativity to enhance the storyline and to re-create sets from venues that no longer existed. Biopics like Raging Bull and Prefontaine re-created sporting events, such as the 1972 Munich Olympics, to tell the stories of featured athletes.

Sports movie soundtracks are also registered for copyright protection and sometimes take on a life of their own separate from the movie. “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from the movie Rocky, was composed by Bill Conti with lyrics by Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins. It became a stadium anthem, as did Rocky III’s “Eye of the Tiger,” recorded by Survivor and written by band members Frankie Sullivan and Jim Peterik, and Rocky IV’s “Living In America,” recorded by James Brown and written by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight. The famous Rocky IV Siberian training montage is set to the song “Heart’s on Fire,” recorded by John Cafferty and written by Vince DiCola, Ed Fruge, and Joe Esposito. Although the athletic moves in the montage cannot be registered, the script and song can be registered, and the song is in fact registered with the Office.

Championship award designs are often registered with the Office, including several different Olympic medals. The Ironman triathlon trophy created by John F. Collins is registered as a sculptural work. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) holds 2-D artwork and sculpture copyright registrations for the World Cup trophy, and Matthew T. Scharle registered his illustration of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series trophy design. The National Football League (NFL) holds the copyright registration on the Vince Lombardi Trophy, designed and created by Tiffany & Company.

Basketball player spinning a ball

The Copyright Office’s exhibit, Find Yourself in Copyright, features the Harlem Globetrotters Pressbook: Abe Saperstein’s Fabulous Harlem Globetrotters. According to Saperstein’s entry in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, “Although only 5-foot-3, Abe Saperstein, through his promotion of the Harlem Globetrotters, did more to popularize and publicize basketball than any of the game’s big men. . . . Through Saperstein’s vision and dedication, the Harlem Globetrotters developed and became world famous for a unique style of play that combined technical mastery with humor, sleight of hand, and fun.”

The Pressbook, which is registered with the Office, was a souvenir book documenting the exhibition basketball team’s historic twenty-fifth season. The Harlem Globetrotters inspired additional creative works, and creative works powered their own continued success. In 1951, the popularity of the Globetrotters led to a Hollywood feature film, The Harlem Globetrotters, starring the group. The next year, the team adopted “Sweet Georgia Brown” as their theme song. The song was first composed by Ben Bernie and Maceo Pinkard, with lyrics by Kenneth Casey, and recorded in 1925 by bandleader Ben Bernie, but the Globetrotters use a version recorded in 1949 by Brother Bones and His Shadows.

Find Yourself in Copyright explores how U.S. copyright law has evolved and how the millions of copyright claims registered with the Office illustrate the varied nature of original works. Once the Library of Congress’s Madison Building fully opens to the public, you can visit the exhibit on the fourth floor. In the meantime, you can explore the exhibit’s companion website.


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