June 1, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
MLB aims brushback pitch at Slingbox
This week Major League Baseball lobbed its second brushback pitch at Slingbox, reiterating its stance that the young company is misusing its content. It's not the first time a content owner has expressed concerns over the legality of the trapezoid-shaped set-top box, yet no one has actually filed suit.
But if a content owner did actually follow through with a lawsuit, it could be a tough case to make in court, say industry observers.
"I think (MLB is) deploying that rhetoric to chill innovation in this segment. I don't think it's working, but I think it would be a big blow to the entertainment industry if they went to court and lost," said Fred von Lohmann, attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But von Lohmann says that doesn't mean MLB won't sue.
MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), the division responsible for MLB.com and its MLB.tv package, says it hasn't ruled out that prospect. At a recent sports law symposium at Fordham University, The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. reported that MLBAM's General Counsel Michael Mellis called the popular set-top box's place-shifting feature illegal.
"Of course, what they are doing is not legal," said Mellis. "We and other leagues have formed a group to study the issue and plan our response. A lot depends on ongoing discussions. Plus, there's no guarantee that Slingbox will be around next year. It's a start-up."
In an interview with CNET News.com, Sling Media CEO Blake Krikorian said it was "a ridiculous statement" to say the Slingbox is illegal. Krikorian also questioned whether MLB has joined with other professional sports leagues to discuss the legal implications of the Slingbox. "Our relationships with the leagues, including MLB as I understand it, are very strong," he said.
MLB.com seems to take issue with allowing Slingbox owners' TV channels to be transmitted over the Internet. "Moving content from one form of transmission to another certainly invites that kind of analysis," said Bob Bowman, CEO of MLB.com, referring to Mellis' statement. For instance, if a TV signal was converted into a radio signal, it might raise the eyebrows of those broadcasters involved. The Slingbox, he added, "is not a place-shifting device, (it) is a delivery-shifting device."
Of all the American professional sports leagues, MLB has one of the richest online portals. Fans can purchase an MLB.tv package to watch any out-of-market game live on the Internet, with up to six simultaneous streams and interactive statistics. Packages range in price from $80 to $110 a year.
Neither the device nor its users appear to be breaking any laws by using it to watch baseball games, say legal experts. On the market for two years now, the Slingbox lets customers watch their own television channels from a remote location via a high-speed Internet connection. Sling says it has sold hundreds of thousands of the devices, available in three models ranging in price from $130 to $250.
Watching sports remotely is arguably one of the Slingbox's most compelling features. A Slingbox allows subscribers to watch the cable channels they have already paid for, but at a different location--the office or a hotel--via a laptop, remote PC or mobile phone.
The same goes for subscribers to MLB's Extra Innings television package, which allows cable and satellite subscribers to pay extra to watch out-of-market games on TV. Again, subscribers with a Slingbox can only tune in those cable or satellite channels they have already purchased.
On opposite teams?
Krikorian is quick to argue that the Slingbox and MLB.com's MLB.tv do not compete directly with each other.
"If I want to watch the (Los Angeles) Dodgers (from San Francisco), an MLB.tv subscription will provide out-of-market games. What the Slingbox does is (give) me access to my local in-market team, my San Francisco Giants, which is what MLB.tv does not provide me when I'm in San Francisco (due to local blackout rules)," said Krikorian. "It's the reason we created the Slingbox."
MLB.com is simply trying to protect its content, particularly its robust MLB.tv offering, said Josh Martin, analyst with The Yankee Group. "It's a burden they have to bear. They have a lot of money riding on it. They don't want to risk their MLB.tv service because people are not using it because they have a Slingbox," he said.
It's a thorny issue because a critic would say MLB wants customers to pay twice for content: once for the original cable feed, and again for MLB.tv to watch a home team when not watching from home.
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