Internet tangles web of rights in sports coverage

By Sarah L. Rasmusson
01.29.01

NEW YORK — The Internet's entry into the sports arena has sharpened an ongoing conflict between the proprietary rights of sports companies and the news media's right to cover the games, a panel of experts agreed.

"I think it is a worrisome development that copyright law, trademark law and antitrust laws are pulled in to protect sports organizations when they are a growing source of news themselves," Felicity Barringer, media reporter for The New York Times, said at a discussion on Jan. 23 at the First Amendment Center, "Carving Up Information Rights in News and Sports." The event was co-sponsored by the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and the First Amendment Center.

"There is a danger that those rights are being distorted in the name of the free market," she added.

The sports leagues' control of Internet access to advertise and air sports events actually limits the freedom of the press, the panelists contended.

In order to televise yesterday's Super Bowl, for instance, CBS had to agree to promote the NFL's Web site, Superbowl.com, and not promote its own Sportsline.com site. Superbowl.com was the only Web site to cybercast the game live around the world.

"The rights to sports events are generally controlled by leagues that then set rules that involve doling out those rights," said Bill Squadron, founder and CEO of the technology company SportVision.

What that really means, Squadron said, is that decisions are "made by a small group of people managing the sports organizations who are maximizing the profitability of the sport, and not always with the fans' interests at heart."

Jeffrey Kessler, recognized as one of the leading sports lawyers in the country, brought up a legal issue. Information about games is considered intellectual property because it was generated under profit-making conditions, he said, so sports data and play calls are the intellectual property of the sports company until the broadcast is over. Kessler works for the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges.

But Squadron said new technology that creates sports data has created legal problems over who owns the rights to that data. It's a problem he is confronting in a new project his company is working on. SportVision is a three-year old technology firm that creates products to report sports data on the Internet. It plans to launch a satellite tracking system at the upcoming Daytona 500 that will allow TV viewers to track all 43 cars at once or select an individual car for speed and racetrack location data. But the company had to sign a contract with NASCAR stating that NASCAR owns the data that is transmitted, he said.

Barringer said the fight between sports companies and rookie Web sites over information rights was one of the reasons she started writing about media access to sports events.

She recently covered a small news site's battle with the Staples Center in Los Angeles over the right to offer sports scores on the Internet for all events at the arena.

"I don't care that this is an operation with three people, it's still a journalism operation and why shouldn't they have the same rights as the New York Times or the L.A. Times to report out of the Staples Center?" she asked, referring to Netradio.com. Although the Web site was originally denied access by the arena's management, Barringer said the arena had since dropped the court case.

Barringer added that sports arenas like the Staples Center and sports organizations like the Olympics "feel that their existence is threatened."

"What they care about," she said, "is whether in five years' time the Web will be a medium that can compete with television. And then the whole funding structure goes to hell in a handbasket because it is a funding structure based on selling rights."

Kessler noted, "There is a cultural belief that once something goes on the Internet it belongs to everybody, and that understanding goes into conflict with our history of property rights."

He cited a recent case that appeared to be a win for the First Amendment: In NBA vs. Motorola, the basketball league had sued Motorola, alleging theft of property when a statistics-collecting company, StatsInc, gave the game scores to Motorola to list on Motorola pagers. Although the NBA does have a broadcast copyright, Kessler said, it lost the case because those rights end as soon as the scores are announced.

Richard Kurnit, an attorney with Frankfurt, Garbus, Kurnit, Klein & Selz, called these intellectual property disputes "the fine art of ripping off." Copyright appeals by sports companies in particular, he noted, compete with the principles of the First Amendment.

"There is a First Amendment issue here as long as (sports companies) continue to back into the use of the courts to suppress speech," he said. "The people that control copyright and trademark rights also control access to the arenas."

Squadron, a former vice president of Fox News Corp. responsible for media acquisitions and joint ventures, said the government was indirectly limiting press freedom in sports coverage.

"Even though the sports leagues and team owners assert with ferocious independence their private property rights, they are very quick to seek antitrust exemptions from Washington and seek public tax dollars for new stadiums," he said. "So, while they may not be acting with direct government action, they have government support."

And Monroe E. Price, professor of law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of law and moderator of the discussion, noted that "allowing sports leagues and teams to view speech as a form of property has consequences for all of us."