For my own educational purposes, I have written down a few chess positions over the past years. These include games that were played by real players at real tournaments.

Now I am thinking of publishing it, as it has grown quite extensive in size and is grouped around a common theme (winning combinations). It would be a "compilation of chess puzzles" of some sort, but with each puzzle being a real game that has been played by real people.

Can I do so, without putting myself in legal trouble? Here are my current thoughts:

  1. I heard that you can ''publish'' positions, but you cannot ''publish'' annotations made by other people. I am not trying to use any annotations, I will make my own. Can I do so?
  2. I also heard that the person who lost the game might view the publication as offensive towards him/his career, as it paints them in a bad light. Is this true?
  • I've removed the question about broadcasting for two reasons. First, it's unrelated and should be its own question. Second, I not only couldn't find the suit you think you're referring to but did find a ruling in favour of Chess24. – Studoku Dec 16 '20 at 13:38

It is a fact that a particulate chess game was played on a particular date by certain specific players, who made specific moves. Facts are not protected by copyright. Anyone is free to report such a game, including the exact moves, and the names of the players. Such games are often used in books about chess, and the same thing is done in books about other games, such as bridge and go, where a record of the play is often kept.

If someone else has described or analyzed such a game, you may not copy that person's wording without permission (except to the limited extent permitted by fair use or fair dealing).

A chess diagram simply represents the position of the pieces in a standard way, and has no original content beyond those facts, and so is not protected by copyright either.

If a person has invented a chess game or a series of chess moves that never took place to illustrate a point in analyzing chess, re-using that sequence of moves might make the new analysis a derivative work of the previous one, if the coverage of the invented sequence of moves is extensive. But that would not apply to the moves of an actual game that was actually played.

There have even been cases of fictional stories based upon real historical chess games. For example "Unicorn Variation" by Roger Zelezney.

17 USC 102 says:

In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

This is the "fact/expression distinction" by which it is said that facts are not protected by copyright, although the form of expressing those facts often is. The same section has the list of kinds of protected works. This includes literary, dramatic, musical, and pictorial works, dance, audiovisual, sound and architectural works. A chess game does not fall into any of those categories. Thus it is ineligible form protection on two separate but related grounds. Beyond that, under the Feist vs Rural decision, a work must have an element of originality to be protected by copyright, and a list of the moves made by chess players has no original content, although an analysis of a game would. The copyright laws of many other countries have been interpreted similarly.

As to the question of offense, in the US at least, and in most other countries, a true statement is never legally defamatory, even if the subject dislikes it. If it is true that Player X lost to Player Y on such and such a date, reporting that fact cannot be libel or any form of defamation. Otherwise the loser could never be named in any sports reporting.

  • The first sentence of the last paragraph is over-broad. There are places where truth is not a defense (Neither you nor the question limit the scope of the answer). Examples include Indonesia(kellywarnerlaw.com/indonesia-defamation-laws) and, apparently Massachusetts, in certain circumstances(!?), though presumably not very actionable in a chess move context ( hklaw.com/en/insights/publications/2009/04/…). Otherwise +1 for a great answer. – sharur Dec 17 '20 at 16:02
  • Can you clarify what is a "fact" in this context? It is also true that it is a fact that the copyrighted lyrics to song X are whatever they are, or the words in book Y are whatever. It doesnt mean you can reproduce them without a license. Surely a reporter going to watch a play cant transcribe exactly what was said, despite it being a fact thats what happened. Whats the difference? – Matt Dec 20 '20 at 13:43
  • @Matt News reports often read "Mr Jones said this, Ms Smith replied that" quoting both. Such short quotes are a matter of fair use/dealing. But that spoken or written words are forms of creative expression, and copyright may attach. Chess moves are not among the things covered by copyright, at least not under 17 USC chapter 1 (US copyright law), and I don't think they are under any other country's copyright law. The words of a description of a chess game would be protected, unless they are the only or most obvious way to describe the facts of what moves were made, then fair use would apply. – David Siegel Dec 20 '20 at 18:31
  • @DavidSiegel Sure, all of that makes sense. But then it sounds like chess moves arent copyrightable because they arent covered by the copyright provisions in law (not a creative work). Not because they are facts. How does the fact that they are facts apply? – Matt Dec 20 '20 at 19:20
  • @Matt 17 USC 102 says: " In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work." This is the "fact/expression distinction" The same suction has the list of kinds of protected works. – David Siegel Dec 20 '20 at 20:29

This is likely to be fine and is fairly common.

A chess position cannot be copyrighted. Nor can a sequence of moves. The creative work is your analysis of them and the presentation.

As for the people playing, I can't see it being an issue legally. If you're that concerned about offending them, don't include names.

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