As proprietor/publisher of a site that relies for its existence on the freedom to use statistics, imagery, and, even logos from Major League Baseball and its players, we view with great trepidation the lawsuit now winding its way through court between MLB’s media wing and CBC, a fantasy league business. As Alan Schwarz reports in today’s Times, the case is scheduled for resolution in July. The issue: does CBC have the right to use players’ names and stats in its for-profit fantasy leagues. MLB says those numbers, when applied in a strictly commercial and non-journalistic format, are proprietary. CBC claims those numbers are part of the public domain. Fundamentally, it’s a tough call. Players should have some right to control how their personas are used for profit. On the other hand, there’s a very blurry line between what is a commercial use and what is a journalistic one. (For a blogger outside the MSM, this is especially troubling.) MLB, in the past, had arrived at a very acceptable solution: it would demand licenses from fantasy providers, but grant them widely and at a reasonably low price. Now they’ve changed their minds. As Schwarz reports, the licenses are being up-charged and given only to a select number of media conglomerates. This is troublesome. MLB has been granted a monopoly, and has often exploited the public for profit by wielding it (see the stadium game). Part of the price for owning a monopoly is that said monopoly should serve the public interest. Moreover, baseball is a business that depends (and even owes its success to) the free publicity generated through the media. After 1994, it should know better than to test the good will of its fan base. Encouraging those fans to become ever more interested and excited about the game should be MLBAM’s primary job. Closing off those fans to the grassroots leagues they enjoy, well, it’s a dangerous game. MLB best be careful about what it wishes for. Is a little more profit from the fantasy sector worth the cost of public good will?
PS: I can’t help but think of the 1980s missteps by Apple Computer, which restricted use of its property, allowing Microsoft to dominate the computer market, despite its inferior product. Apple and baseball have a great deal in common; both trade on the good will of a very devoted fan base, and emphasize their “values.” Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. MLB should be careful about losing more ground to its competitors for America’s sports dollar.