Monday, Feb. 2, 2004 | 11:04 a.m.
About half a dozen hotel-casinos in Las Vegas either canceled or changed their Super Bowl parties after receiving cease-and-desist letters from the National Football League warning them that their big-screen broadcasts of the game violate federal copyright laws.
The letters created uncertainty about the future of admission-only parties that have become a major tourism draw for the city and mean big bucks for the casinos that host them. They also triggered questions about whether the NFL is retaliating for a recent ad campaign by the Las Vegas tourism agency promoting the city as a more favorable place to watch the game than the Super Bowl's host city of Houston -- a claim the NFL denies.
The properties -- include the Luxor, Tuscany, the Aladdin, the Stardust, Sam's Town, the Palms, the Las Vegas Hilton, the Orleans and the MGM Grand -- said they received the letters last week and tweaked their parties or directed customers to other areas of the casino where they could watch the game.
"If (the property) plans to display the Super Bowl championship game using oversized screens or other equipment not commonly found in private homes, this letter will put you on notice that any such display will violate the exclusive copyrights of the NFL and is not permitted under (federal law)," one NFL letter reads.
Copyright law generally allows companies to control public performances of events. The laws are generally written in such a way that if companies use equipment typically used in the home, the broadcast is exempt from copyright infringement, legal experts say.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the policy essentially applies to any "mass gathering of people to watch the event that on Feb. 2 won't be there" and venues that are "creating a pay-per-view event."
Casinos typically pay a licensing fee to the NFL to broadcast all regular season games over and above regionally broadcast games cable subscribers receive at home. But playoff and Super Bowl games are available to all without a fee.
"These establishments are charging admission for something we're offering for free," McCarthy said.
But casino representatives are questioning the timing of the move, saying the NFL and fans alike are well aware of the mega-parties that have been available across town for more than a decade.
McCarthy said the NFL is reacting to recent press releases, news articles and other notices about upcoming parties that the league wasn't previously aware of. The league, for example, wasn't aware that the Palms hosted a similar party in its movie theater last year, he said.
The decision to issue the letters -- which have been going to venues nationwide from IMAX theaters to nonprofits -- also has nothing to do with Las Vegas, he said.
"This is a copyright issue. This isn't a city issue," he said.
All of the properties contacted said they had planned to broadcast the events on big screens and charge admission fees. But the sizes of the venues varies greatly. The Orleans had planned a party for hundreds in its sports arena and the Aladdin had scheduled an event for an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people in its events center. The MGM Grand had set up parties in a restaurant and in a buffet area. The Tuscany planned an event for about 400 people in its ballroom. The Luxor had planned a party in its Luxor Theatre and planned to charge a $30 admissions fee. That party was canceled because of the NFL warning.
"I've been in absolute shock," Julie Hall, director of marketing for the Tuscany, said Friday. "We're not the only ones" holding big-screen parties, she said.
While the Orleans and the Aladdin canceled their events, other venues including the Palms, Sam's Town and the Stardust changed theirs by using regular TV screens to broadcast the game. The Palms acquired more than 100 TV sets to accomplish the job. The Tuscany considered something similar in its ballroom but decided against it and instead planned to host VIP customers and ticket holders in its bar and lounge.
"There was no way it was going to work ... to have hundreds of people in a room trying to look at TV screens," Hall said. "It would just be silly."
Robert Stewart, a spokesman for Caesars Entertainment Inc., said today that the company's Las Vegas Hilton had received a similar cease-and-desist notice from the NFL late Friday.
Stewart said the property's party went on as planned, but the company complied with the NFL's concerns by refunding money to patrons who had paid in advance to attend.
Station Casinos Inc., which as of Friday hadn't received any NFL notices, wasn't expecting any because the company made sure that it is using small TV screens to broadcast the game, spokeswoman Gina Lateef said.