Tuesday, May 16, 2006

You Don't Own Me

I have a feeling that Baron Violent will enjoy this post, even though it is about baseball.

As a fantasy baseball player myself, I never really thought about who owns the rights to the names and statistics that make these leagues possible. Well, now a court will have to decide. As of right now, Major League Baseball claims they own the rights to the players' names and statistics (they purchased the rights from the players' union) and they require that fantasy leagues buy licenses for their use. Now, a small fantasy sports company is suing MLB claiming that names and statistics are in the public domain and are protected under the first amendment.

First of all, if you hadn't noticed already, MLB loves its monopolies. Bud Selig is a shrewd businessman and knows that revenues are higher when there is less competition. He also knows that when you decrease supply, prices go up, which is why he has cut back on the number of licenses given out each year.

These issues date back before online fantasy leagues. Other sports geeks like me might remember a game called Strat-O-Matic, which was a board game that used player names and statistics in head-to-head match-ups. According to a 1970 case, that board game was subject to license because it "misappropriated the players' marketable identity."

This case could be about much more than fantasy sports and board games though. Note the following:

"If anything, this case is even more impactful if the court rules for the players, because it will speak to any time you use a name in a commercial venture," said Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at U.C.L.A. "What if you use a historical figure's name in a historical novel? Or other games, like Trivial Pursuit? How about 'Jeopardy!'? Would they be liable as well? That seems to be the logical consequence of this. How do you identify what is news, and other times when there's communication of factual information?"

One interesting wrinkle is that Major League Baseball appeared to take the argument's other side in 1996. When several major leaguers from the 1940's and 50's sued Major League Baseball over use of their names and statistics in materials like promotional videos and game programs, baseball argued that such use was protected by the First Amendment.
And this is why I hate Bud Selig and the owners so much. It is one thing to be rabid monopolists, but it is another thing altogether to be hypocritical about it. I long for a day when baseball is run by people who are unwilling to steal the soul of the game for more profit. Until then, I can only hope this goes to the Supreme Court and they can tell the world that there are limits to copyrights.