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Sling and a miss

Major League Baseball may disagree, but a device that gives fans more ways to watch games is a good thing.

June 08, 2007

COPYRIGHT OWNERS often find themselves railing against high-tech products that expand what consumers can do with music, video and other content. Rightly or wrongly, that expansion threatens them. A good example is the recent contretemps between Major League Baseball Advanced Media and Sling Media, maker of the Slingbox, a device that lets people watch online the cable or satellite TV channels they receive at home.

MLB Advanced Media owns the rights to the 30 major league teams' interactive and Internet operations. One service it sells is MLB.TV, which lets subscribers watch "out-of-market" games (those not involving local teams) online for $15 a month. For avid Dodgers or Angels fans, MLB.TV is a way to see games even when they're not in Southern California.

In some ways, Sling undermines the market for MLB.TV. A Slingbox takes TV signals from a cable or satellite TV receiver and retransmits them over the Internet to a computer running Sling's software. In other words, the PC becomes a virtual TV, displaying programs as if it were connected directly to the cable or satellite receiver. Rather than subscribing to MLB.TV, the aforementioned Dodgers or Angels fans could use a Slingbox to transmit games from their TVs at home to a remote PC -- not just in distant cities but at the office or any local WiFi hotspot.

To executives at MLB Advanced Media, Slingbox violates the law by enabling its customers to retransmit copyrighted telecasts. They tried in vain to collect licensing fees from Sling last year, and last month their general counsel told the Hollywood Reporter that baseball and other sports leagues were studying how to respond.

But for consumers, the Slingbox isn't a way to bootleg baseball games. It's a way to get more value out of the TV programming they're already paying for. Time Warner Cable charges the same monthly fee for its services no matter how many hours or days you spend away from home; all those channels are still being piped to your cable box or TV set. The Slingbox is simply a means to consume those channels when you're not in your living room.

That's clearly personal use. And while Sling might not help MLB.TV, it could certainly help the teams themselves -- both by boosting fan loyalty and by adding value to the premium packages of game telecasts sold through cable and satellite. Baseball fans are more likely to buy an expensive TV subscription if they can watch the games at home and away. It's worth noting that despite the tough-sounding comments last month, MLB Advance Media's top executive, Bob Bowman, has said there's no plan to sue Sling or its customers. Instead, it's going to compete with Sling in the marketplace, which is where this contest belongs.

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