Who owns sports coverage?

The New York Times has an interesting article on the tension between sports leagues and media organizations, an issue that Techdirt has been covering for a while. The Times article begins by focusing on blogging and amateur journalism, but then tries to get to the core problem:

At the heart of the issue, which people on both sides alternately describe as a commercial dispute and a First Amendment fight, is a simple question: Who owns sports coverage?

The question isn’t that simple, yet the answer is much, much simpler than their question implies.

The question: who can own sports coverage?

The answer: Nobody.

It’s very simple. These sports leagues use copyright to claim their ownership, yet you can’t copyright a fact. Sports coverage is the reporting of facts. Copyright applies to the reporting (e.g. a particular article, particular video footage), but it does not apply to the facts (i.e. what actually happened in the game, who did what and what the outcome was, the scores, the statistics, etc).

The sports leagues can decide who they give press passes to and set whatever requirements they wish. To this extent, sure, a sports game is a “private event” as Frank Hawkins, senior vice president of business affairs at the N.F.L., claims. But sports leagues have no legal leg to stand on to restrict the presentation of factual information obtained from attending or observing a game. They have no basis in copyright law to tell an audience member what he or she can or cannot blog about, or what video of the game he or she can or cannot share. Mike Masnick from Techdirt writes,

If the media refused to take press passes and reported on the team in other ways (including buying tickets to the game for reporters) then it could report however it wanted — just with a lot less access. But if all the major media started boycotting the terms of access this way, you can bet that MLB and the NFL would back down quickly.

More importantly though, why are we, as a society, so obsessed with the ownership of ideas, and even facts? How is this promoting progress? Additional coverage of sporting events by any form of media just draws more attention to the events and to the league anyways! Why are they so afraid of it? What is there to be afraid of?

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