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May 22, 2006
MLB vs Fantasy Baseball
North American monopoly organization Major League Baseball (MLB) has kept tight reign on its franchise products. Team merchandise, broadcasting, and other data streams that surround the game are major money centers for the organization. Now MLB is trying to extend its control of the use of the statistics about baseball players and games.
In specific, MLB is suing CBC Distribution and Marketing, a company that operates an online fantasy baseball league. MLB is claiming a "right of publicity" and saying that if you want to use these statistics you have to pay a license fee. MLB is basing its defense on this claim in part because previous court rulings have held that raw statistics are part of the public domain, but that ballplayers do have marketable identities and that these images can be subject to copyright and license restriction, even when the "image" is only the name and statistics.
CBC is arguing that the data are public domain outputs of public figures - the players. CBC also draws a direct line between what it does and what a news organization does. Your hometown paper doesn't pay a fee to print the sports section, nor report the racing results. To require this, says CBC, would be to put all sorts of data-based reporting at risk. MLB contends that there is a difference between reporting - even commercial, for-profit news - and the mechanics of running a league, even a fantasy one. However, this could potentially put us on a slippery slope - for example, would makers of a game like Trivial Pursuit have to pay a license for its "Sports" category question, even though they might have "Science" category questions that were essentially similar.
Not to be missed in this story is the fact that MLB itself runs fantasy leagues and in recent years has taken steps to cut down its licensees, focusing on the bigger (and presumably more profitable) properties such as CBS and that CBC was among the smaller outlets cut out of the deal.
Also not to be missed is that about 10 years ago the shoe was on the other foot and MLB was arguing that its use of historical players' names and statistics in its own promotional videos was protected by the First Amendment.
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