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Legal to Show Over-the-Air TV at Your Business?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on
Small business waiting rooms and dining areas may be a perfect place for a TV, but even free over-the-air broadcasts may legally cost you. As the U.S. Supreme Court reminded us in the Aereo case, just because it's free to watch a TV broadcast, that doesn't mean you can make money by letting others watch it. Here are some legal points to consider before you show over-the-air TV broadcasts at your business:

Paid TV Services v. Free Services

Using a personal cable account to show cable to your customers is its own issue -- one that can be solved by signing up and paying for a "business" account that covers commercial licenses to air cable programming. Similarly, showing Netflix at your business may violate the streaming subscriber's contract, but the likely result will be Netflix canceling your membership. With paid services like these, a small business can at least minimize if not eliminate the possibility of being sued for copyright infringement. With free services like over-the-air TV broadcast, you may not be paying for any services, but you may setting yourself up for a federal suit. Need legal advice on how your small business should operate? Consult with an experienced business attorney about your options.

Performance Rights and Free TV

As bar and restaurant owners learn every year in January or February, just because the Super Bowl is free to watch at home doesn't mean your business is treated the same way. Almost all broadcast TV is copyrighted content, and can only be viewed in certain commercial circumstances without violating copyright laws. For example, "food service and drinking establishments" are given wider berth to broadcast free TV, but in general, a viewing area for free TV can be no larger than 2,000 square feet. In addition, no office can publicly display free over-the-air broadcasting on a TV screen bigger than 55 inches (diagonal). Why all the rules? These numbers come from a federal law that exempts certain "performances" of copyrighted material from copyright infringement. Remember, even though it's over-the-air, you generally need a license to have copyrighted material playing in a commercial setting, even if only in the background. So most small businesses have two options when showing content available over-the-air:
  1. Sign up for a commercial cable-TV package to view them, or
  2. Follow the federal exemption guidelines (included in part above).
If you're uncomfortable with these options, or you want to know more about how your business can legally use over-the-air TV, contact a local communications/media lawyer today. If you haven't started your business yet, you can complete business formation documents from home with simple, DIY options customized for your state.

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