The Supreme Court is considering whether to take a case which would address the issue of whether major league baseball players' names and statistics constitute the intellectual property of Major League Baseball, requiring the payment of a royalty fee.
Fox News reported on the case as follows:
St. Louis-based company called CBC Distribution and Marketing Inc. says that companies shouldn’t have to pay licensing fees to use those figures — and they’ve already won their case in two lower courts, so MLB has filed an appeal to the nation's highest court.
A decision from the Supreme Court could have a broad impact on the fantasy league industry, which generates more than $1.5 billion annually from millions of participants. . . .
Some large media companies, such as Yahoo and ESPN, already pay millions in licensing fees to use names and stats in their fantasy leagues, and they operate with MLB’s blessing.
But smaller companies are balking at paying such fees. CBC has argued that players’ names and stats are in the public domain, as they are easily found in newspapers and on TV.
The case raises some interesting questions: to what extent should the sports industry be able to claim that their players and their records constitute the industry or the team's intellectual property? As an IP licensing attorney it is difficult to rationalize Major League Baseball's position: is this not a an example of industry overreaching? While it makes sense that the sports world should be able to license trademarked items such as logo products as well as copyrighted items such as television and radio broadcasts, how do you extend those rights to the players themselves? From a public policy perspective, the potential applications of such a legal theory raise some clear concerns, particularly when you start looking outside the sports industry. I would hate to think that any of my former employers were claiming my name and "record" as their intellectual property.
Two lower courts have already rejected Major League Baseball's position. According to Fox News, the 8th Circuit Court panel ruled in a 2-1 decision last October that CBC doesn’t have to pay the players, finding that fantasy leagues’ broad use of statistics is not the same as "faking an endorsement." My expectation is that the Supreme Court will let those decisions stand and pass on this case; however, we will likely see early next week if the Court thinks that there is any merit to Major League Baseball's position, and if this case should be further addressed. The Silicon Valley IP Licensing Law Blog will keep you posted on the developments.