Major League Baseball takes swing at Sling Media

MLB executive says company helps game-watching customers violate their cable or satellite user agreements.

LOS ANGELES--Major League Baseball wants Sling Media to stop slinging around the league's content.

Sling enables TV viewers to access their set-top or TiVo boxes from anywhere in the world via any device that connects to the Web. MLB says that's fine, but if viewers want to watch on multiple devices, they have to pay multiple times.

The situation is part of a larger fight brewing between broadcasters and the companies that relay video streams to portable devices. Proof of the growing conflict came Tuesday during a panel discussion at the Digital Media Summit here, when George Kliavkoff, executive vice president of business for MLB Advanced Media, debated the issue with Rich Buchanan, Sling Media's vice president of marketing.

At the heart of the issue is that Sling Media, Orb Networks and similar companies cut out cable and satellite operators who pay great sums for transmission rights in their areas, according to Kliavkoff. Baseball sells transmission rights to specific geographical locations. So, a cable subscriber in San Francisco who watches a Giants baseball game from his or her laptop during a visit to Chicago is stealing from the Chicago cable operator who paid to transmit MLB games in that city.

But we're not talking Napster here, argues Buchanan. The cable subscriber in such a scenario already purchased the content from a programmer back home and under the law can watch it wherever he or she chooses, he said.

"Your interpretation of the (cable and satellite user agreement) is wrong," Kliavkoff told Buchanan as the two spoke before some 200 conference attendees. Sling Media users "are violating the scope of their user agreements."

Since the late '90s, when Napster and other file-sharing sites helped millions illegally download copyright music, other industries are closely guarding their content. In many instances, technology is forcing changes on businesses before they have time to devise strategies to deal with them.

Baseball hasn't sued anyone, and nobody is sure at this point which side would prevail in a legal fight. But the issue could be settled in court; some industry insiders have predicted that cable and satellite operators will fight to protect their turf.

"I don't doubt that at some point the operators will cut off their noses to spite their faces," Art Brodsky, spokesman for Public Knowledge, an Internet-user watchdog group, said referring to operators and programmers.

Brodsky says technology that allows consumers to watch TV wherever they want is good for cable operators because it instills loyalty. Their home programmer or operator can advertise to subscribers regardless of their geographical location. He says baseball's stance is also likely to alienate fans.

"What difference does it make to MLB whether I'm watching the game at home or someplace else?" he asked. "We're talking about content that's been paid for. Nobody has stolen anything."

Buchanan said that privately held Sling Media has participated in talks with all the major professional leagues, including MLB Baseball, which he said is the most protective of its content. He said San Mateo, Calif.-based Sling is not out to rip anyone off and cited two of the company's backers as a testament to its good intentions. In January, cable giant Liberty Media and satellite operator EchoStar Communications were part of a $46.6 million round of funding for the company.

But if it comes down to a legal fight, Buchanan indicated that his company won't flinch.

"The bottom line," he said, "is I'd hate to be a lawyer arguing that I want consumers to pay twice for content."

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