Seventh Circuit Rules: States May Restrict Broadcasting of Publicly Sponsored Sporting Events

24 08 2011

In a long awaited ruling, the Seventh Circuit on Wednesday held that the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) was within its rights to grant exclusive broadcast rights to a private commercial vendor and to charge news organizations a fee for the right to broadcast games. The court held that such arrangements do not run afoul of the First Amendment.

Addressing only the issue of the broadcasting of the entire event, the court held that a sporting event was a “performance” and the right to broadcast an event in it’s entirety is a proprietary right that a governmental entity may exercise. The case, WIAA v. Gannett began when The Appleton Post-Crescent, a Gannett newspaper, broadcasted several state championship football games online in their entirety, believing that it was within their First Amendment right to do so. The WIAA sued.

The court first rejected the notion that this case was a copyright case and then proceeded to make intellectual property analogies to the sporting events, repeatedly calling the sporting events “performances,” (performances are protected by copyright) and comparing sporting events to concerts, plays and patents, all of which have protectable intellectual property elements. No court has ever held that a sporting event is a copyrightable performance, and this court did not either. A sporting event is not a work of authorship like a concert or a play. While the court fell short of explicitly holding that a sporting event has intellectual property rights, it basically upheld the assertion of intellectual-property-like rights by the WIAA (while insisting that no intellectual property rights were involved). The underlying basis for the court’s holding was the Supreme Court case of Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard, which held that a television station misappropriated the property of a human cannonball performer by broadcasting the performance in its entirety.

A bright spot in the ruling is that the Seventh Circuit rejected the lower court’s finding that sports reporting deserves less First Amendment protection than political reporting, and held that “[t]here is no basis for a rule that makes the press’s right to coverage depend on the purported value of the object of their coverage.” This is a win for the First Amendment.

Importantly, the ruling is limited to the single issue of whether or not the media has a First Amendment right to broadcast an entire event sponsored by a state actor. But the reasoning is broad enough to be interpreted to support a multitude of restrictions. For example, within the restrictions imposed by the WIAA under the exclusive broadcast agreement, news organizations don’t have a right to “live blog” the events. The court took no issue with that aspect of the exclusive agreement, leaving the live blog restrictions valid.

The court specifically didn’t address issues in the conflict related to still photography, such reprint sale restrictions, because of the issues presented to the court by the parties.

I won’t be surprised if this case to be followed by further restrictions on coverage of government events, and I predict that cities and sports associations alike will interpret this ruling to mean that a city can sponsor a public event and then restrict who may broadcast the event. This ruling could extend to restrictions on broadcasting parades, marathons, and city-sponsored festivals. Several years ago a Los Angeles District Court ruled that the city could not grant exclusive rights to an “official” television station.

The result is a disappointment to the NPPA, which joined several other news organizations in filing an amicus brief in support of the newspaper  last year.

The entire Seventh Circuit ruling can be found here: WIAA v. Gannett Seventh Circuit Opinion, No. 10-2627

An extensive legal article that I wrote on the issue can be found here:

An earlier NPPA article on the conflict can be found here.

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