Is It Illegal To Describe The Sporting Event You're Watching?

from the questions-to-answer dept

A few years back, there was a service launched that would let anyone become their own sports announcer. It let web users broadcast their own audio commentary of a sporting event over the web. I can’t remember when I read about it, and don’t know if it’s still around at all — but the idea was certainly intriguing. There certainly are some people who just can’t stand certain professional sportscasters, and the opportunity to open up sports commentary to just about anyone is an interesting idea. Of course, that doesn’t fit with the way most organized sports view themselves. We’ve discussed in the past how ruthless Major League Baseball has been in claiming it owns nearly all aspects of a game. At the time, one of the questions was whether or not it would be illegal to sit in the stands and “broadcast” an audio description of the game to a friend using a mobile phone. Sports leagues may claim it’s illegal, but it seems unlikely that the courts would agree.

This issue is only going to get a lot more legal attention in the near future. As amateur to amateur content becomes more common, it’s going to hit organized sports in ways they don’t seem to realize. Take a look at the World Cup, for example. Again, this is an organized sporting event that has been quite aggressive in trying to protect all game-related content — going so far as to pre-warn random websites not to rebroadcast games. However, with the means of production and distribution now reaching the hands of just about everyone (for example a cameraphone and YouTube) some are starting to wonder whether organized sports will be able to cope. It certainly raises some questions about the boundaries of what can actually be presented. Where is the line? Can I call someone and describe what I’m seeing? What if it’s a videocall? What if there are two people on the line? Or 200? Or 2 million? It becomes increasingly difficult to figure out what’s okay and what isn’t when it’s no longer just a few big broadcast companies at the table. It also could destroy the idea that one broadcaster gets exclusive rights to an event. If individuals are able to broadcast their own content from a game, how long will it be until other professional sports broadcasters start to ask why they can’t just show up and broadcast on their own, even without securing the “rights”. If the events of a game are considered facts that are part of a news story — what’s to stop just about anyone, professional or amateur, from sending out their own version of the game?

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Comments on “Is It Illegal To Describe The Sporting Event You're Watching?”

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TW says:

Is It Illegal To Describe The Sporting Event You'r

It’s certainly an interesting question. It seems FIFA has gone to extreme lengths to try to stop exactly this sort of behaviour happening at the World Cup.

Along with my ticket for the England versus Trinidad & Tobago match I received an information sheet with friendly advice on items that would not be permitted into the ground. Included on the list with the usual no-brainers (knives, guns, etc – hello?) was the following:

Any equipment or devices capable of being used to transmit, or in any other manner disseminate over the internet or any other media any sound, image,
description, or result of any event taking place within the site;

Derek Kerton (profile) says:


Don’t forget the Olympics. They took action against individual athletes who were posting their experiences in their own blogs. IOC decided that they ‘owned’ the rights to those “Olympic stories’.

As for “Where do you draw the line?” I think a natural place would be exactly where the revenue changes from $0 to something greater. For example, precedent is set that you can rent a DVD and have 50 friends over to watch it (no charge) at your house without owing any money to the studio. But if you rent a DVD and charge 5 people to see it in your house, you owe royalties to the studio.

I’m not arguing for or against this choice of demarcation, but it does sound sensible. Anything people do for free has historically been seen as personal use, and anything with a fee has been commercial use and must pay royalties or licensing.

The only problem is that this model gets complicated in the Internet era when “personal” content can be viewed/heard by millions of people with no personal relationship with the content creator. In this case, ‘personal’ content can truly eat into an event owner’s market size.

I, for one says:

Arbitary rules

> Take a look at the World Cup, for example. Again, this is an

> organized sporting event that has been quite aggressive in trying

> to protect all game-related content

And trying to protect advertising monopolies. To the extent of excluding 1000 Dutch fans from a game they had paid to see because they were wearing shirts with the logo a non-official sponsor. As usual this was arbitary, unannounced and made up on the spot. The fans lost their money and didn’t see the game.

> Can I call someone and describe what I’m seeing?

Yes, if phones are permitted in the ground. It’s a private call and nobody can stop you yet. However since the stadium is private property they’re quite within their rights to exclude you from bringing in a phone.

> What if it’s a videocall?

Same thing.

> What if there are two people on the line? Or 200? Or 2 million?

Then it’s a broadcast. By definition. And the laws applying to broadcasters now apply to you.

> It becomes increasingly difficult to figure out what’s okay and

> what isn’t when it’s no longer just a few big broadcast companies

> at the table.

By “okay” do you mean moral or legal? The two increasingly have nothing to do with one another. Anything can be made “illegal” at a whim which is why ordinary respect for law is all but vanished.

Morality requires reason. Law has become arbitary and only requires the threat of force.

> If the events of a game are considered facts that are part of a news

> story — what’s to stop just about anyone, professional or amateur,

> from sending out their own version of the game?

Men with guns. Seriously, before we get to some kind of massive backlash when everyone has finally had enough, you will see places like sports stadiums become completely sealed environments with no line of sight to the outside world, Faraday cages, phone jammers and armed quasi-police agents patrolling the aisles confiscating mobile phones and intimidating the crowd.

Perhaps the backlash will be in falling attendances. After 40 years supporting Manchester United my family now boycott all mechandise and have no interest in the team. Once dinner conversation was all about United, but now my brothers and sisters and relatives don’t even know who is in the squad. We decided, when United was bought as a trophy gift by some sleazy American businessman, that it was no longer relevant to our culture.

Matt says:

Re: Arbitary rules

“sleazy [insert modifier here] businessman”

I don’t think it’s fair to characterise the businessman in that way. Being a businessman makes him sleazy; “American” may as well be “tall,” “Asian,” or “- and I mean, really sleazy -.” Sure, the American may only see Man U. as a cash cow, or perhaps something to complement the steer horns on his Cadillac, but do you really think the rest of the major football clubs are owned by altruistic lovers of a beautiful game? They are owned and operated by people interested in turning a profit.

Sure, don’t buy the mechandise, and don’t pay for tickets (most Americans treat baseball in the same manner; they are more likely to root for their favorite team from the comfort of a pub than with giant foam hands and $10 beers at the park). But don’t try to kill a sport because the owners and marketers are a bunch of turds; wait until the players become a bunch of money-hungry pansies, like the NHL (hockey) or NBA (basketball).

[now for some ranting]

Of course, it is becoming harder to watch football (soccer) on American TV. While world-class teams are battling on the pitch, ESPN (and ESPN HD) has talk shows and ESPN2 (and ESPN2 HD) shows past years’ Poker tournaments or (yes, this actually happened) the Jump Rope championship! FC Barcelona v. Real Madrid, and the leading US sports network is showing jump rope? WTF!? How did the broadcast rights get so screwed up that only ESPN Deportes – in Spanish and available at an additional US$50 per month – is showing that game? Is jump rope more likely to sell laundry detergent? Did the demographic research really show more interest in jump rope? It’s depressing, but it is reality.

Boycott the products they advertise, write angry letters, get a soapbox and find a corner, set yourself on fire…whatever it takes.

Metman says:

Re: Re: Arbitary rules

ESPN claims that in addition to monetary compensation the governing body also wanted to regulate the advertising during the broadcast. I can not find the info on the web I just remember a segment from “Rome is Burning” on ESPN before the World Cup started.

If this is actually the case, I dont blame them.

American says:

Re: Re: Socer?

The problem with socer is that you have to be on drugs to like it. I mean, every socer player i know is on drugs. A socer game consist of kicking a ball back a forworth with alot of running back an forth. Each team scores 1 point and is tied at the end. Where the game then gets somewhat interesting because something important is about to happen. The tie breaker is the only part of the game that matters. Amercan Football is the most popular sport in America because it has lots of contact(huge hits). And because it has more strategy to it then anyone will ever learn because there is always some new play being developed. And yes, Americans appear rude and sleezy to foriegners, but most of us are just can’t relate cuz other countries just don’t get it. Our views are the views of the most successful people in the world. Of course we tend to be cocky and arogant, we’re the best.

A Yank says:

Re: Arbitary rules

What is it you don’t like about the United purchase? That it is owned by one person now or that it is owned by an American? Note: As an American, I’m accustomed to all the professional teams being owned by just one person or a few, so I’m just trying to get the perception of those on the “other side of the pond.”

I, for one says:

Re: Re: Arbitary rules

“What is it you don’t like about the United purchase? That it is owned by one person now or that it is owned by an American?”

Yes, to be perfectly honest the fact that they’re now owned by an American is a factor. At the risk of further offending the members of the greatest nation on Earth, who can’t seem to take a bit of friendly ribbing, that involves the fact that Amercans, know exactly jack about football. Continuing with the honesty, it’s only fair to point out that Glazer Jr is a very enthusiastic and, it’s widely said, knowledgable chap on the subject. But to buy the greatest football team on Earth (Okay actually that’s Real Madrid – now, thanks to you) as a trophy present for the lad stinks of ignorant money to northen English types. You can buy it but you’ll never own it. πŸ™‚

What really stinks though is the knowledge of what will happen later. It’s not really Glazer that bugs us, it’s the fact that Man U are no longer a shareholders club. We all know money will kill the club in the end. If you don’t understand this you’ve never been to Manchester.

You see, as a lifelong supporter I owned shares in the club. I went to the shareholder meetings. The takeover of Man U was hostile. We were all told that we were compelled to sell and any shares not sold would be worthless. Well, I’ll tell you… I am the proud owner of a few hundred WORTHLESS Man U shares. I intend to give the certificate to my grandchildren one day as a symbol of when Manchester United were the best *British* football team on the planet.

So, over here on this side – we’re just as proud and full of it as you over there.

Metman says:

Re: Arbitary rules

Sleezy American company? Michael Glazer? By sleezy I assume you mean capitalistic.

Maybe next time the controlling interest in the team wont let their ego/pride float on the NYSE and be open to people with more money then them. Moreover, the shared did not manifest themselves for Glazer to take a controlling interest. They had to be bought from people who had them. So, instead of pointing across the pond perhaps your disregard should be torward the poor management that allowed the takeover to happen to begin with.

And yes its American pride (or arrogance) that provoked this reply. You hold a carrot out in front of someone do not be pissed off if they get it.

claire rand says:


latest form of DRM, if a computer is present within 10 miles of your tv, or if you even know anyone whos got one your picture will be blank.

just in case…

this is not something they can actually stop, and if you are performing a commentary yourself, well thats *your* creation not theirs. you can’t use thier pictures etc but you can talk about them.

and yes they can stop you recording the game at the stadium etc, even stop you talking about it live. but i can see a market for watching it with the sound muted on telly and getting an audio commentary ‘live’ via the net from a fan site or two.

Madkow says:

Re: pointless

Actually the dutch fans weren’t banned and they were not shirts. They were actually shorts and the fans were let in. Though they did have to take off their shorts. And the reason they did is because this Dutch brewery gave out thousands of free shorts to circumvent the advertising.

In any case I agree it’s a bit absurd. I travelled all the way to germany and could only drink Bud in the stadiums. Not something I was looking forward to.

But it’s an international event, not a German one, and Budweiser paid the most money. Such is the way of the world…

Tom says:

Sports become passe

Well, I for one have gotten to the point where I just don’t care about watching many sports I like to play any more. The sports leagues are going to choke themselves off and lose in the long run. This is just another reason why I REALLY don’t care about even watching nor attending a sporting event. First off, seating, parking, etc is always horrible. Then you have to deal with loudmouths. Occasionally you have really CRAPPY referees (of which the World Cup seems to be a drive-by victim of this in loads). And even worse, a bunch of narcissistic players who all seem to be in love with themselves and forget that it is about the fans not their happy asses.

It comes down to this, if you enjoy a sport go PLAY it and don’t watch it. You will accomplish at least two things:

1) Save your hard-earned money for something you want to spend it on.

2) Gotten some well-deserved exercise too.

Bottom line: I just don’t care anymore and you won’t see me voluntarily paying to attend a sporting event any time in the future. I like my money (and free time) in my hands not being abrogated to a bunch of losers who don’t deserve it in the first place.


John says:

NFL disclaimer

IF you listen to the NFL’s disclaimer, announced near the end of every televised game, it sounds as if you can’t even talk about the game Monday morning with your co-workers. I can’t remember the exact wording at the moment, but it is very restrictive concerning any description of the game. Its nuts.

Gumby says:

The entire entertainment industry

When it really comes down to it, the so called communications age is going to require most entertainment mediums to make major changes. Think about it, what portion of the collective entertainment industry, movies, sports, TV, music, print media, has not had some impact made on them by the availability of networking and such technology as tivo? Everything is going to change. They have to realize that.

Topher3105 (profile) says:

What is there to worry about?

I mean, unlike movies and music, where pirating the content can cause a loss of sales, are you telling me that people would rather watch a cruddy low-resolution cameraphone recording of a World Cup soccer game over watching it on cable in HD, or actually being there?

In the case of the World Cup, where tickets have been sold out for months, the fact that people outside the stadiums are seeing the games not through the regular channels is moot. I mean, FIFA has already made their money on these events, even before the first ball was kicked. The only case where some channels might loose money is in ad revenue if they feel more people are watching it through amateur channels, but again, watching the World Cup on a wide-screen HD television is superior to watching it on some low resolution intermittent webcast.

The bottom line is that people will prefer to be there, but when there are limited ticket sales and they get sold out, people will look at other ways to see the game. IN many cases, the regular distribution channels are blacked out if you live in the city hosting the game. In these cases, you are left with no choice but to look for alternative to traditional game broadcasts.

I can see organized sports getting worried if in a few years the only people attending a game are a handful of people with cameraphones trained on the fields, but when you can still fill a stadium with World Cup fanatics, or a rink with NHL fanatics, or a diamond with MLB fanatics, I wouldn’t worry.

And of course, they should worry when they keep jacking up the price of tickets. Eventually, people will compromise to watch the game on a cellphone or website when it becomes too prohibitive to watch the game live.

Junyo (user link) says:

Again, people tend to confuse the line where one person/entity’s property stops, and someone else’s begins. No, you can’t broadcast the actual event that you’re watching; that’s copywritten OPP (shout out to Naughty By Nature). On the other hand, your description of said event is your IP, and you can do whatever you want with it. If the owners of the event want to make sure that you can’t share a description of the event they’re free to not publicize it, hold it in a secret location, and not reveal the score for fear that non-payers won’t steal such proprietery info. It’s no different than any other news, commentary, or review; you’re not allowed to appropriate the work w/o permission, you are allowed to comment on the work.

anonymous coward says:

Just like the RIAA and MPAA, MLB is fighting against their own customers’ efforts to build the business. Just think of all the goodwill and publicity that would come from league support of amateur baseball podcasts.

I’ll bet you would find some very talented amateurs that would draw listeners for the between pitch patter as much as listening to the game itself.

homer hotcakes says:

fantasy baseball

In the US, Major Leaque Baseball has tried to shut down fantasy leaque baseball sites because they use the players names and stats—the counter argument is that the players are public figures and the stats are factual information in the public domain. It seems likely that MLB will use the courts and the legislatures to try and secure ownership of baseball statistics—-and piss off some of their most devoted fans in the process.

Eugene R. Fisher says:

Most sporting events seem to be a proxy for primitive inter-tribal warfare. Too many resources (money and time) is devoted to something that produces a very brief flash of entertainment and nothing else! Sporting events like these produce their revenues at or near the time of the event. The networks do not show reruns of games played through out the season nor does there seem to be much of an aftermarket of DVD sales. Aside from brief reruns of single plays that are exceptional that’s it. Movies, dramas, comedies, action seem to be what people feel is worth replaying based on the demand. The sports leagues have overvalued their content.

Carlie J. Coats, Jr. (user link) says:

US Constitutional-Law Requirements

IANAL, but.

If we had an honest Supreme Court (as both Eldred and Kelo prove that we don’t), then the text from the original Supreme Court decision that created the doctrine of Fair Use would make this one a no-brainer: according to that Nineteenth-Century US Supreme Court, Congress is forbidden to make any copyright or contract-enforceability law so stringent that it suppresses either Freedom of Speech or Freedom of the Press. More recent Supreme Court decisions make it clear that what I put on my web site is every much a protected freedom-of-the-press activity as what the New York Times does. Put these together and MLB (and the IOC and …) should have no leg to stand on in the US.

Just Me says:

Dutch Fans Correction

Hello “I, for one” I heard it differently, and in a way that actually makes more sense.

This weekend on NPR’s show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” one of the trivia questions was about those Dutch fans. They said the 1,000 fans were wearing shorts (pants) with a local Dutch beer company logo on them. Bud is the official sponsor. They were initially denied access to the game, but then they removed their pants and were allowed entry. BBC.UK source article below.

Also, I know some Dutch people and I heard how much tickets (+ travel) cost. I’m guessing that a little thing like a piece of clothing is going to keep them from the game. To directly refute your points, they did not loose their ticket money and they did see the game.

“Fans lose trousers to gain entry”

MD says:


I’ll take exception to the “pansy Hockey players” comment. There was a strike for a year, over whether a group of owners could use monopolistic power to force salary caps on players, whose only asset was their talent. As one commentator said, “when you have millionaires against billionaires, the billionaires win.” At least the athletes, human though they may be, are doing something to earn their money. It sells beer…

Sports team owners have the imagination and business savvy to match the RIAA or MPAA. They want to lock in any source of revenue. In the case of the NHL players, they managed to put a cap on salaries without any commesurate cap on their revenue opportunities.

I suppose they could make it a condition of entry that someone not disclose details of the game (until they leave), but how are you going to stpo someone in another country from publishing details off of TV? Some countries (unfortunately, not Canada) still have “freedom of speech” and the broadcaster only owns the presentation, not the facts. You can’t plug the “analog hole” any better with sports than with TV or movies.

David says:

Arbitary rules by I, for one

>>At the risk of further offending the members of the greatest nation on Earth, >>who can’t seem to take a bit of friendly ribbing, that involves the fact that >>Amercans, know exactly jack about football.

Actually we know everything there is to know about football. It’s soccer that we don’t understand. πŸ˜‰

I, for one says:

Re: Soccer vs Football

I thought the USA performance against Italy was admirable. Holding the Italians to a draw is as good as winning. But, y’know the match we were all hoping to see was USA vs Iran πŸ™‚

On American football – I’d like to see some of those guys go up against the Kiwis at RUGBY!! Now there’s a mans sport. πŸ™‚

“We’re not all a-holes ”

Nobody thinks that. It’s mostly the self-haters over there with a persecution complex.

But your government…that’s another story….

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