American Morse Illegal on the Ham Bands?

As I’ve mentioned here, I’m half-heartedly trying to learn American Morse Code. Why? Well, while ham radio is keeping International Morse Code alive, there is not as big an outlet for American Morse. The Morse Telegraph Club (MTC) is perhaps the only organization keeping American Morse alive, but there are far fewer members of MTC as there are amateur radio operators who use Morse Code.

Now, I had heard of some amateurs using Americian Morse on the air, but not only are they few and far between, the American Morse that you would hear on the air is not the same as clicks and clacks of a telegraph sounder. And, now, on top of that, it is apparently illegal for amateur radio operators to use American Morse Code on the air.

This was recently brought to my attention on MTC mailing list, slowspeedwire. Chip, N3IW, noted:

Also, for US amateur radio operators we cannot legally use American Morse on the air. That’s because the FCC has defined the CW mode as using International Code only. There is no legal mode that can use American Morse on the air because of that definition.

Being curious about this, I tried to find out where this was so defined, but was unable to and asked for a clarification. In response, Jim, WB8SIW, MTC president, said:

The issue of the legality of American Morse on the ham bands is a fairly recent development. As I understand it, the issue arose when someone at the NCVEC conference asked a representative of the FCC if the use of American Morse Code on Amateur Service frequencies was legal. The FCC representatives present considered the question and stated that, in their opinions, the use of American Morse was illegal because Part 97 defines telegraphy as the standard International Morse Code.

This statement was reiterated and supported by Gary Johnston, W3BE, who writes a FCC rules column for the QCWA and perhaps other publications. Mr. Johnston has gone on record as being unequivicolly opposed to the use of the Amercan Morse Code on the ham bands. While he is retired from the FCC and his opinion has no official weight, the fact that he has pronounced it illegal influenes many radio amateurs.

I had some correspondence with Mr. Johnston in which I outlined the history of the use of American Morse on the ham bands and argued a contrary opinion. The result was essentially a terse note in response, which, in my opinion, I can only describe as being intended to “put me in my place.”

A couple of points are probably in order, however:

First, no one has ever tested the opinion that American Morse is illegal through a test case under the Administrative Law process. However, I suspect few of us have the time or money to do so if we received a Notice of Apparent Violation.

Second, the old rule of government regulation stands. When one asks a government agency to rule on a hypothetical issue, one will nearly always obtain the most restrictive opinion. Someone made the mistake of asking if it was legal, and, as a result, we have now been told that it likely is.

Still, I was not satisified, and because some of Johnston’s proclamations on the rules irk me so much that I can’t bear to read his column anymore, I searched again through the rules. This time, I found references to International Morse Code in 97.307(f)(9) and 97.307(f)(10), and those parts referred to the use of International Morse Code by Novices and Technicians. I also found part 97.305(a), which says, “An amateur station may transmit a CW emission on any frequency authorized to the control operator.” It does not, however, specify that the CW emission be in International Morse Code.

After posting this, to the mailing list, N3IW did point me at the correct parts. He wrote:

The definition of CW and MCW are found in Part 97.3(c)(1) and 97.3(c)(4):

Part 97.3(c) The following terms are used in this part to indicate emission types. Refer to Sec. 2.201 of the FCC Rules, Emission, modulation and transmission characteristics, for information on emission type designators.
(1) CW. International Morse code telegraphy emissions having designators with A, C, H, J or R as the first symbol; 1 as the second symbol; A or B as the third symbol; and emissions J2A and J2B.
(4) MCW. Tone-modulated international Morse code telegraphy emissions having designators with A, C, D, F, G, H or R as the first symbol; 2 as the second symbol; A or B as the third symbol.

So, there you have it. These two parts conclusively define CW and MCW as being International Morse Code. It seems kind of silly to me that American Morse is not allowed, given that it’s such a well-defined code and that the rules allow the transmission of far more exotic codes using the digital modes. Anyone want to draft a petition to change the rules?


  1. matt, kc8bew says:

    I don’t understand it either. If it is a published, open, non-encrypted mode then it should be able to be used. Morse is a digital mode right? How do other digital modes get approved or accepted? Maybe take the click & clack audio form and call it something other than morse?

  2. Folks come up with new digital modes all the time. Old digital modes can certainly be used as long as they’re published and not considered encrypted. It may not be defined as Morse Telegraphy… call it what you will. It’s another digital mode. Maybe don’t use it in segments reserved for CW? I’ve heard old timers using it on 80 meters on several occasions.

  3. Bob, KG6AF says:

    Why change the rules? While it’s true that the current regs seem to disallow the use of American Morse in CW-only segments (i.e., Novice/Tech segments on 80/40/15, and the first 100 kHz of 6 and 2 meters), what’s to preclude calling it a data mode? The only hitch I can see is that Part 97 defines a data mode as “[t]elemetry, telecommand and computer communications emission.” At a very minimum, then, it would seem to be OK if you generated and received the code with a computer. And if that’s allowed, I find it hard to believe that the FCC is going to issue you a citation for sending American Morse with a key, and copying it by ear.

  4. I’d venture to say that American Morse Code is allowed under 97.309(a)(4): “An amateur station transmitting a RTTY or data emission using a digital code specified in this paragraph may use any technique whose technical characteristics have been documented publicly, such as CLOVER, G-TOR, or PacTOR, for the purpose of facilitating communications. ” One can merely define American Morse Code as a digital signal, and its characteristics have been published for over a hundred years. It’s certainly more documented more than PACTOR and the D-STAR AMBE vocoder.

    I couldn’t bear to read Johnston’s column prior to this irksome exchange. His pompous W3BE-O-GRAMs and writing style is annoying. But I digress. While it’s important to follow the rules, his opinion epitomizes the blow-hards in this hobby who hold formalities and rules in higher regard than experimentation and just having fun, which is the spirit of this hobby. There’s no reasonable technical or philosophical argument against American Morse Code usage. If I were you, I would run American Morse code and ID in International until someone at the FCC says otherwise. The FCC has bigger issues to deal than someone using a different Morse code and life is too short to even argue about stuff like this in amateur radio.

  5. You’re right about life being too short to argue about this stuff, but I like stirring the pot. :)

  6. Interesting.

    I’d lay my wooden nickel down on it being perfectly legal in the band segments allocated for digital comms. If not, I’d like to see where they think that is spelled out.

    Be interesting to dig into the origin of the rule. I’d also be willing to lay down a wooden nickel that it pre-dates the digital modes or even ssb. Probably they were trying to encourage folks to adopt a single standard, which might have been a good thing when it was originally written – DECADES ago.

    And if it is antiquated, a petition is the way to get it updated. But if its a digital mode, nothing to gain by a change. Lots of dead air.

    73 de w4kaz

  7. I don’t blame you for stirring the pot. W3BE’s position is just crazy stupid and I give it the “Face-Palm Moment of the Week in Amateur Radio” award.

  8. This thread is quite interesting. I recently decided to learn the american morse and joined the Les Kerr’s MorseKOB wire.

    In my opinion, the reason the FCC originally designated the international morse as the ‘de facto’ code for radio-telegraphy was probably due at the time to the ITU requirements, for all control operators that were transmitting on any frequencies below 30 MHz.

    The reason was simple. Back then… morse could literally save lives, especially for those at sea.

    If it weren’t the case, then why would radio operators on board ALL ships would have to keep mandatory watches 2 to 4 times per hour on the 500 kHz distress and calling frequency ?

    I understand the rationale behind ITU’s decision at the time to standardize the radio telegraphy but now! Out of all things! Now that most of our hams on the bands cannot possibly make the difference between SOS and W1W.
    Why then would this old requirement for all member-countries would still nowadays have a need ?

    But thinking about it… since the ITU’s requirement for international morse telegraphy is no longer a requirement at their member-countries’ level, then all we would have to do is to petition the FCC as such so they can accordingly change the rules within part 97 as the ITU’s requirement is no longer there.

    FCC (or any ITU-member country for that matter) could redefine International morse code as the ‘prefered’ (or ‘suggested’) telegraphy on the air and to be used for all legal Identifications purposes, of course.

    I’m all for it… Now, where do I sign?

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