Thursday, January 19, 2006

MLB wants to charge for historical facts

That post title stands in stark contrast to the rather biased headline of this Yahoo! story:

Fantasy League Co. Wants Free Stats

ST. LOUIS - A company that runs sports fantasy leagues is asking a federal court to decide whether major leaguers' batting averages and home run counts are historical facts that can be used freely or property that can be sold.

In a lawsuit that could affect the pastime of an estimated 16 million people, CBC Distribution and Marketing wants the judge to stop Major League Baseball from requiring a license to use the statistics.

The company claims baseball statistics become historical facts as soon as the game is over, so it shouldn't have to pay for the right to use them. [read more]

The company is right, of course, and this issue has already been settled by law. Alan Schwarz, in his excellent book "The Numbers Game," details how in 1997 STATS Inc. and Motorola prevailed over the NBA in a similar squabble over use of real-time stats and scores (p. 192):

The [Second] Circuit Court confirmed the original decision holding that no copyright laws had been broken, and reversed -- strongly -- the holding that STATS had taken NBA property by broadcasting scores and statistics. The NBA was not a news-gathering service on which STATS was free riding, and therefore did not warrant INS-type protection. And while the video and audio broadcasts of sports events are protected under copyright law, the facts contained in them are not. [emphasis mine]

MLB may have no legal basis for demanding payment for the use of its statistics, but this is depressingly characteristic of the game's brain trust -- greedy and shortsighted. Acting like the cartel/mafiosi that they are, MLB's clubs take the questionable view that nobody should be allowed to make a dime off the game without baseball getting its cut. Never mind that MLB has marginalized the fantasy game and its enthusiasts for years. Never mind that MLB took a dim view at best of the fantasy game, believing that it somehow diluted fan interest (rooting for individuals and "stats" ahead of home teams and their wins and losses), rather than enhancing it. Never mind that fantasy baseball and its devotees already help drive the game's bottom line (what percentage of subscribers to MLB's Extra Innings satellite package does so primarily for the fantasy implications?). MLB wants it both ways -- it wishes to profit off the fantasy baseball enterprise without having to contribute anything or innovate in any way. How sanctimonious, yet typical, of MLB!

And how stupid! Fantasy sports companies will have to pass on to customers the costs of paying MLB's "license fees" for otherwise freely available information, which of course will price some fantasy game providers out of business and drive others away from the hobby altogether. This is MLB's bold strategy for putting fans first? To potentially destroy a hobby that passionately binds fans to the game just to squeeze out a few more bucks? Fantasy sports companies offer baseball some of the best free advertising and publicity available! Why fight this?

Just so we understand: MLB wants to profit from an enterprise it won't support, sell the rights to property it doesn't legally own, and alienate a significant portion of its fan base in the process. These guys are pretty savvy, no?

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