Fantasy league company sues for free rights to batting averages

ST. LOUIS, Missouri (AP) -- A company that runs sports fantasy leagues is asking a federal court to decide whether major leaguers' batting averages and home run counts are historical facts that can be used freely or property that can be sold.

In a lawsuit that could affect the pastime of an estimated 16 million people, CBC Distribution and Marketing wants the judge to stop Major League Baseball from requiring a license to use the statistics.

The company says baseball statistics become historical facts as soon as the game is over, so it shouldn't have to pay for the right to use them.

Working mostly over the Internet, CBC and its hundreds of competitors provide player profiles and process reams of daily data for fans who pretend to be team owners, drafting players for imaginary squads and using statistics to determine a winner at the season's end.

While some leagues are just for fun, others award large cash prizes, and operating them has become a multimillion-dollar industry.

CBC, which has run the CDM Fantasy Sports leagues since 1992, sued baseball last year after it took over the rights to the statistics and profiles from the Major League Baseball Players Association and declined to grant the company a new license.

Before the shift, CBC had been paying the players' association 9 percent of gross. But in January 2005, Major League Baseball announced a $50 million agreement with the players' association giving baseball exclusive rights to license statistics.

Despite being turned down for the new license, CBC has continued to operate leagues during the legal dispute.

Major League Baseball has claimed that intellectual property law makes it illegal for fantasy league operators to "commercially exploit the identities and statistical profiles" of big league players.

Jim Gallagher, a spokesman for Major League Baseball Advanced Media, baseball's Internet arm, declined comment on the lawsuit, scheduled for a hearing this summer in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, Missouri.

Ben Clark, a St. Louis attorney who specializes in intellectual property rights, said a win by Major League Baseball could "send a shudder through the entire fantasy industry," he said.

On the other hand, he said, it stands to lose the rights to any royalties for use of statistics.

"You just wonder whether it's a fight Major League Baseball wants to have," he said.