Later this morning I’ll be on a panel at the American Bar Association’s Communications Law conference. The title of the panel: “Who Owns The News? Attempts by sports organizations and entertainers to control coverage.” It refers to the tendency of these industries to lock down journalism on what they do, at all levels — essentially to control what people can say about the performances, images and even statistics.
This is an increasingly tricky question, in large part because of the increasingly controlling use of copyright law by (of course) the entertainment industry and the sports leagues. Here’s an example from the Williams law firm’s blog: “Who Owns Baseball Statistics?” — a case in which Major League Baseball is launching lawyers at people who indulge in the widespread online fantasy leagues. These are some of the most ardent fans baseball will ever have.
I’m going to offer no legal advice, because I’m not a lawyer. But I will say some of the following.
First, given the unhealthy preoccupation Americans seem to have with professional entertainment and sports, part of me would be pleased to see these industries annoy their best customers sufficiently that the customers decide to spend their money elsewhere. I don’t expect that.
Second, the journalist in me is appalled by the way the sports and entertainment folks are using copyright law — abusing it, in my view — by claiming ownership of what look to me like basic facts. I know it’s more complicated than that, but there’s something perverse about telling people that the statistics your players generate by playing the game are owned by the league.
Third, and most important, the game is basically over, if you’ll pardon the expression. The democratization of media means that journalists are being supplemented by folks who are covering events themselves. Banning digital cameras, as some have tried to do, is futile as cameras shrink (and disappear into clothing, for instance) and have higher quality in taking pictures and videos. Bloggers will ignore the restrictions pro journalists may have agreed to. And so on.
This should be interesting, anyway.