IP Win for Baseball Fans
In a case closely followed by baseball enthusiasts, a federal judge in St. Louis ruled earlier this month that the Major League Baseball Players’ Association does not own the intellectual property rights to players’ names and performance statistics. The court held that the use of players’ names and statistics in fantasy baseball does not violate the players’ rights of privacy and that the use of such information is protected by the First Amendment right of free speech. The court rejected a claim, however, that the statistics compiled by the company that promotes the fantasy baseball games are protected by copyright law.
A fantasy baseball game is one in which participants form teams by “drafting” players from various Major League baseball teams. Participants or “owners” then compete against other fantasy teams, and the teams’ respective performances are based on the individual players’ performance statistics, such as batting averages, at bats, hits, runs, doubles, triples, home runs, etc. Fantasy sports games are offered not only in baseball but also in football, hockey, golf, basketball and other sports.
In the case of C.B.C. Distribution and Marketing, Inc. v. Major League Baseball Advanced Media, L.P. et al., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55060 (Aug. 8, 2006), CBC had entered into a license agreement with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association in which CBC was granted the right to use the players’ names, likenesses and playing records for the purpose of offering fantasy baseball games. The agreement included a no-challenge provision whereby CBC agreed not to challenge the Players’ Association’s intellectual property rights to the players’ names and statistics.
The Players’ Association subsequently entered into an exclusive license agreement with Major League Baseball Advanced Media, L.P. for similar rights. For three years prior to entering into this agreement, Advanced Media had offered fantasy baseball games on MLB.com without obtaining a license and without obtaining permission from the Players’ Association. CBC instituted a declaratory judgment action to clarify its rights vis-à-vis Advanced Media and the Players’ Association.
The Players’ Association contended the use of the players’ names violated the players’ right of publicity.
According to the court, in order to prove a violation of the right of publicity, the players had to show that CBC hadappropriated the commercial value of the players’ identities by using without their consent
their names, likenesses, or other indicia of identity. In rejecting this argument, the court noted that there was nothing about CBC’s fantasy games that suggested or implied that any Major League baseball player was associated with CBC’s games or that any player endorsed or sponsored the games in any way. The court also held that a person’s name is not equivalent to a symbol of his or her identity (such as a photograph or other likeness). In short, the court concluded that CBC’s use of baseball players’ names and playing records did not involve the character, personality, reputation or physical appearance of the players; instead, it simply involved historical facts about the players and therefore did not implicate the persona or identity of any player. Moreover, the use of the players’ names and statistics by CBC did not affect the players’ ability to earn a living and in fact probably enhanced their marketability.
CBC argued that its use of the players’ names and statistics for purpose of fantasy baseball was protected by the First Amendment right of free speech. The court agreed with CBC on the ground that the information used by CBC constituted historical facts about baseball players that was already in the public domain. The court also found that there was an educational component to the manner in which CBC utilized this information in that it provided an education in baseball. The fact that CBC uses this information for profit, to entertain, or in an interactive manner does not disqualify it from First Amendment protection.
With respect to federal copyright law, CBC advanced an alternate argument that even if its use of baseball information violated the players’ right of privacy, that information was copyrightable, and federal copyright law preempts state privacy law. The court rejected this argument and held that CBC’s compilation of baseball statistics was analogous to a compilation of names, towns and telephone numbers in a phone directory and, as such, was not copyrightable.
Finally, with respect to the license agreement between CBC and the Players’ Association, the court held that because the Players’ Association never had the right to grant a license to players’ names and statistics, the no-challenge provision in the license agreement was void. In reaching this ruling, the court relied on the patent case of Lear, Inc. v. Adkins, 395 U.S. 653 (1969), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that a patent licensee has no obligation to make further royalty payments once a third party proves that the patent at issue is invalid.