Internet tangles web of rights in sports coverage

Monday, January 29, 2001

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

“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

In order to televise yesterday’s Super Bowl, for instance, CBS had
to agree to promote the NFL’s Web site,, and not promote its
own site. 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

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 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

“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