A federal judge Tuesday ruled that Major League Baseball and its players' union can't force the operator of a St. Louis-based fantasy sports league to pay licensing fees for baseball statistics used in its business.
U.S. Magistrate Mary Ann L. Medler, in a 49-page decision, said that C.B.C. Distribution and Marketing Inc. didn't need a license to operate its fantasy baseball business because MLB players are public figures and statistics from big-league games are in the public domain. Medler's blunt opinion, which sided almost exclusively with the fantasy game operator, "pretty much nailed it on every substantive issue," said Jack Williams, a Georgia State University law professor who has written law review articles about the debate over "who owns the back of a baseball card."
"She said that baseball statistics, in effect, couldn't be copyrighted," Williams said. "And even if they could be, the issue is trumped by the First Amendment. What she did was hit a grand slam for C.B.C. and the fantasy industry."
Tuesday's ruling involved one company with a dispute involving professional baseball, but legal observers and fantasy league experts said that the opinion could force a restructuring of the broader fantasy sports industry -- and might have implications for other information that can be repackaged to generate profits online.
Fantasy league users have for years created dream teams whose performance is driven by real-world statistics. But online technology has helped to broaden the appeal of fantasy leagues. Now, an estimated 15 million fans spend more than $1 billion annually to play fantasy sports games online -- money that athletes and leagues had hoped to control.
Baseball has been trimming the number of fantasy league licenses granted. It has sold licenses -- for a reported $2 million each -- to ESPN, Yahoo and CBS Sportsline.
MLB and its players are expected to appeal the decision, but the attorney who represented C.B.C. suggested that an appeal would fail. "This is a phenomenal order, and what I think is quite frankly the right ruling," said Rudolph Telscher.
A spokesman for the MLB Players Assn. on Tuesday said players "most certainly disagree with the decision, but beyond that, have to defer any further comments." A league spokesman declined to comment on whether the decision would be appealed.
Fantasy sports fans welcomed the decision. In an e-mail, Dan Okrent, a co-founder of a rotisserie baseball league that helped to broaden the appeal of such leagues, described the ruling as "wonderful.... The only thing that saddens me about it is that there won't be a public trial, during which MLB's incredible greed would have been on public display."