Supreme Court Backs Online Fantasy Leagues

Striking a blow for fantasy-league owners everywhere, the Supreme Court on Monday <a href=",0,1550072.story">declined to intervene</a> in a suit involving Major League Baseball and a Web-based fantasy-league operator.

Richard Martin, Contributor

June 3, 2008

3 Min Read

Striking a blow for fantasy-league owners everywhere, the Supreme Court on Monday declined to intervene in a suit involving Major League Baseball and a Web-based fantasy-league operator.The case, C.B.C. Distribution v. Major League Baseball, involved an online operation now known as, which operates fantasy baseball leagues. CDM sued Major League Baseball after the league office demanded that it pay rights fees for the use of players' names and statistics. The players' union, along with the National Football League Players Association, leaped into the case on the side of MLB, saying that free use of the players' vitals constituted an infringement of their "publicity rights." (Other prominent fantasy-league hosters, including ESPN, CBS Sportsline, and Fox Sports, pay a licensing fee to the leagues.)

A federal judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis both ruled in favor of C.B.C., saying that since the names and the stats can be found in any sports section of any newspaper or online outlet across the land, they are in the public domain and charging for them constitutes a free-speech violation. By refusing to take the case, the U.S. Supreme Court has essentially endorsed that view.

This is a good thing for several reasons. For one thing, it preserves the legal doctrine that, if you're famous, your name and your mug (not to mention your batting average) are fair game, within the laws of libel, of course. Can you imagine if Tom Cruise got to charge people every time they used the phrase "Tom Cruise" or ran his photo?

Major League Baseball is trying to have its cake and eat it, too: curtailing the free use of images, statistics, and names of players like Pedro Martinez and Chipper Jones strikes at the heart of what fuels the game's money machine: free publicity. The fantasy leagues have become a huge outlet for fans' passion for minutiae about their favorite teams and players. Commissioner Bud Selig would be a fool to squash that.

Pro sports leagues have a long history of overzealous litigation: combative Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis once sued two rival teams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers, because he said their uniforms and logos too closely resembled the Raiders' gear.

Second, MLB is simply trying to monopolize the booming fantasy-league phenomenon: C.B.C. Distribution actually had a license for the player data up until 2005, when the league licensed to Advance Media the rights to names and stats "for exploitation via all interactive media." That's when C.B.C. sued.

Finally, there's a larger principle at stake here. The achievements of pro athletes, like those of great scientists and artists, are ultimately the property of mankind. The law surrounding "commercial use" of the work of individuals is complicated -- you can't sell a CD with a cover version of "Stairway to Heaven" without permission from Led Zeppelin, but you can play it at your next garage concert if you're so moved. The Supreme Court has once again ruled for the free exchange of noncopyrighted information, particularly in the online world.

As the original ruling in C.B.C. v. MLB stated, "the strong federal policy favoring the full and free use of ideas in the public domain as manifested in the laws of intellectual property prevails over ... contractual provisions."

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