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socrateaser, Lawyer
Category: Intellectual Property Law
Satisfied Customers: 39171
Experience:  Retired (mostly)
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who could possibly hold a copyright on NTSC color bars?

This answer was rated:

who could possibly hold a copyright on NTSC color bars?
Or the old joke: Never Twice Same Color"?


See product here:

[also have Tshirt with same design]


both have long explanatory texts describing the history




Title: NTSC colors mug Product Link: 168118597452063660 Result: Not Approved Content Notes: --- Design contains an image or text that may be subject to copyright. If you are interested in purchasing Official Licensed Merchandise from Zazzle please visit: In keeping with our content guidelines, we had no choice but to cancel the entire order.


The color bars are not copyright NTSC. The National Television System Committee was a federally-created organization authorized by the Federal Communications Committee, and as such any works would be public domain from the moment of their creation, per 17 U.S.C. 105.

However, the color bars are not the creative work of the NTSC. So, the fact that the NTSC was a federal agency is irrelevant.

The author of the original color bars is Al Goldberg, who was employed by CBS Laboratories. So, if anyone is the copyright owner, that would be CBS.

The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) is the author of several revised color bar schemata, and since it is a private organization, then that would be another possible copyright that you would be violating (dependent upon your chosen set of color bars).

I doubt that either CBS or SMPTE maintains an active copyright on the color bars, because the bars are routinely used everywhere in the video industry and no one ever pays mandatory fees to SMPTE for its creation. Thus, a court would almost certainly deem that the bars have been abandoned into the public domain, because there has never been any effort to control their use by third parties.

Concerning the zazzle comment, I suspect that the company is simply covering its ass-ets, if you understand my meaning. They don't know if there's a problem, but it's easier to err on the side of caution.

BotXXXXX XXXXXne, you could make a different color scheme, or some other arrangement of color bars (most people won't notice the differences). But, unless you manufacturer the product yourself, anyone who wants to avoid liability will simply refuse to manufacturer, because they can't be certain there is no risk.

You could contact SMPTE and ask for a license. But, you'll have to pick a set of color bars that you know are SMPTE's creation -- otherwise, you'll be wasting your time.

Hope this helps.
Customer: replied 4 years ago.

Thank you very much! That was right to the point and told me a lot I didn't know. I will check out the SMPTE color bars and maybe contact them.
Do you have any objection if I send your opinion to Zazzle as I discuss this with them?

Thank you again.

Be my guest.
socrateaser and 2 other Intellectual Property Law Specialists are ready to help you
Customer: replied 4 years ago.

I was glad to have you as my lawyer for this. I have written to SMPTE and await their reply. I would post it here but don't want to incur unnecessary expenses. Is there a way to drop you a one-liner as to outcome and/or contact you specifically again about this matter should it need a little more negotiation [I realize the second would incur another fee]?

You can always post something new in this Q&A session. The system may try to bill you if I "Answer" your reply. But if all you are doing is providing an update, then I can respond with a request for information and you can just ignore any further requests from the system to reply again.

Take care.
Customer: replied 4 years ago.

I wonder if I have exhausted all possibilities . . .


You could take the position that your use of the color bars is "transformative" and "fair use." Title 17 U.S.C. 107 permits the use of the creative work of others for "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research...."

The use of copyright protected materials for the purposes of "parody" is protected under the 1st Amendment. See Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 510 U.S. 569 (1994)

Your use of the design with the NTSC joke is parody (though it incorrectly attributes the design to a different organization). That is the real problem. If you were directly poking fun at SMPTE, they wouldn't have a "snowball's chance" of prevailing against you in court. But, you are poking fun at someone who is not the actual copyright owner, and this raises an entirely different cause of action: defamation of character. SMPTE could claim that you are falsely disparaging its work by attributing it to the NTSC.

At this point, I do not believe that SMPTE could enforce its copyright against you while you are using it for the purposes of parody. But, SMPTE could sue you for defamation, in that you are falsely attributing the work to that of the NTSC, which simultaneously disparaging that work.

This would give SMPTE a "foot in the door" to sue you and you cannot afford to be sued, even if you win, because it could cost you $50,000 or more to defend this sort of legal action.

You'll have to decide whether or not to take the risk. Even if you do, you'll never get Zazzle, to manufacture the product. You'll have to find some small job manufacturer, who won't think about the potential legal issues, because it will be more interested about getting money for the manufacturing.

Hope this helps.
Customer: replied 4 years ago.

Oops. I only meant to update you but I guess I made it too much of a question, so I am liable for another $30 I guess. It has been interesting to learn about all this but definitely not worth pursuing, since I would only be likely to sell a couple of cups with a profit on each of about $2.


But this education from you has been most enjoyable.

Whether or not you pay, is up to you. I "justanswer" the questions. Naturally, I'll be happier if you pay than if you don't. But, I won't hold it against you, either way.

Best wishes.
Customer: replied 4 years ago.

I tried to pay but it booted me out

I will ask customer service to help.
Customer: replied 4 years ago.

will post 30 for your expanded info [even though I will not be using it] if I can be sure that i will not be charged 60 because exchange has gone more rounds just to try to pay you. I really am glad that I stumbled upon you and am curious who you are in real life.

Better to leave a tip, than to provide another rating.

As for who I am in real life, I've wondered about that question since I was about 13 years old. I'm flattered by your interest, but I must remain anonymous. I hope you understand.