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I've heard from many non-authoritative sources that all US amateur radio transmissions (except copyright-infringing ones, of course) are automatically released into the public domain, but I have never seen a citation either to copyright law or to FCC rules, and Part 97 does not contain the words "domain" or "copyright." Is it true that transmitting something over amateur radio in the United States constitutes a release of the material into the public domain?

I'm asking here rather than on Amateur Radio SE because this question is about copyright law, not just Part 97.

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    @MichaelHall maybe explaining a concept to someone else? "CQ" "599" "73" QSOs certainly aren't copyrightable, but a lot of what's said in ragchews likely is. Also, SSTV.
    – Someone
    Jul 12, 2023 at 4:54
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    @MichaelHall you could record yourself playing a song on guitar, and plug that into your amateur radio station at night. Or you could read short stories you wrote. those are copyright material.
    – Trish
    Jul 12, 2023 at 9:25
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    @MichaelHall commercial broadcasters claim copyright on recordings of live interviews, where the recording of the live transmission is the initial fixing of the content. I don't see why this wouldn't also apply to amateur radio communication.
    – phoog
    Jul 12, 2023 at 9:36
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    @MichaelHall broadcasting is forbidden, but you can transmit one-way information bulletins that are relevant to amateur radio, and it's not uncommon for people to get quite long-winded when talking to other people, potentially getting into the area of copyrightable material.
    – Someone
    Jul 12, 2023 at 14:31
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    I don’t think being long-winded is relevant to issues of copyright. Information bulletins maybe, but if the purpose is to disseminate information, wouldn’t you encourage rather than restrict repetition?! Just trying to imagine a plausible scenario…. Anyway, no need to debate further, Trish has provided an excellent answer IMO. Jul 12, 2023 at 14:37

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No* in the

Waht falls under copyright in the US is described in 17 USC §102, and the whole question hinges on the bolded part:

(a)Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, [...]

The radio transmission itself thus does not fall under copyright, as it is not fixed in a tangible medium while it travels through the air, and it is not a sound recording under 17 USC 102 (a)7 either.

As such, normal discussions on the bands like Alice talking to Bob, does not even create a copyright in the first place. That is not regulated in FCC rules, it falls directly from the copyright law: because the material is not fixed, it is not copyrighted in the first place. That is, if nobody fixed or fixes the transmission, nobody owns them. That doesn't mean the contents are public domain:

However the contents of the transmission can be under copyright anyway and transmitting them might be copyright infringement (aka "Radio Piracy" or "Pirate Radio"): you could play a recording of a song via amateur radio, which is under copyright, or you could read a book which is under copyright, and that would violate the author's copyrights if you don't have license to do so. But even if you have a license, transmitting does not put the materials into the public domain: it is a fixed expression (replayed on amateur band) and thus copyrighted.

Nothing in copyright law would turn a transmitted copyrighted material into the public domain - that requires an express release into it.

But it's complicated...

Now, it gets really complicated if we introduce simultaneously fixing the material. Now, the same rules apply as they do when you record a visiting speaker. Or rather, the same setup as a studio and the musicians using it.

Alice creates copyrighted material at home

If Alice loops her signal through a recording box somewhere on her side, the material gets fixed while she is sending. That means it is copyrighted material, and Alice has the copyrights in the original recording, as she both creates the material and records it.

Alice also might own the copyright in the script or notes she used, but that's beside the point.

Bob creates copyrighted material from afar

Let's assume Alice never thought about recording and just airs her material into the night without infringing on other people's copyrights.

But now let's assume Bob, 3 counties over, is also recording Alice signal, and thus fixing the material. Bob had no creative input besides the recording, but the material is now fixed. Bob had some technical and arguably creative input into that recording by choosing the filter settings on his radio setup, antenna placement, and such.

Bob for sure does own a copyright in the recording itself, especially in the alterations he made. However, he would not gain copyright over the material that Alice introduced, which now became fixed by Bob's action. In a strange fashion, Bob turned Alice's speech into a copyrighted tangible expression, and the recording is in a very strange place:

  • Bob owns the "Master" itself, and the technical changes that he did.
  • Alice owns the contents of the recording, as in her voice input and choice of words.

Distribution of this recording would require both Bob's and Alice's consent now, or Fair Use.

Alice clawing back the rights!

But Alice can circumvent Bob's copyright at any time by simply re-recording her show, and Bob can not claim copyright on that different recording - that was exactly what Taylor Swift did in 2019.

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    What if the radio amateur records the transmission as it is made? Then it is fixed and the broadcaster owns any copyright that was created by fixing it, don't you think? What if an unrelated party records the broadcast? If Ham Alice broadcasts creative content of her own without recording it, for example an improvised poem, and Ham Bob records it, who owns the copyright? This is, as I understand it, what the question seeks to establish. Certainly commercial radio producers claim copyright on recordings of live interview broadcasts.
    – phoog
    Jul 12, 2023 at 9:29
  • @phoog simultanous recording does also work, I chose to pre-record in the example for clarity. The unrelated party would own a recording (made somewhat legally - recording radio was always a grey form of piracy), but Bob might not gain the copyright.
    – Trish
    Jul 12, 2023 at 9:36
  • Well obviously the prerecorded version of the hypothetical is clearer; I just get the sense that the asker of the question is interested in the less clear version. Presumably we'll find out soon enough.
    – phoog
    Jul 12, 2023 at 9:38
  • @phoog well, here's the more complicated stuff^^
    – Trish
    Jul 12, 2023 at 10:58

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