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NBA fouls out in court

The NBA loses a precedent-setting court case that clears the way for Internet companies to instantly post information such as sports scores and stock quotes.

The National Basketball Association today lost a precedent-setting court case that clears the way for Internet companies to post instant information such as sports scores and stock quotes.

U.S. Appeals Court Judge Ralph Winter ruled today that the NBA does not own its game scores and therefore cannot stop companies from rebroadcasting the scores in real time using modern technology, such as pager networks and online services.

The case "could have a very significant impact on the Internet because obviously what the Net provides is a mechanism for real-time transmission of events," Jeffrey Neuburger, a copyright attorney and partner with Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner, told CNET.

In the case, Judge Winter ruled in favor of Stats Incorporated, a company that sends out live scores and statistics of games to Motorola pager and America Online customers.

The NBA had sued Stats, along with Motorola and AOL, saying that it owned the game scores and that the companies should have to pay for the right to broadcast them.

A New York state court had ruled in the NBA's favor, saying that the companies were "misappropriating" the NBA's property by broadcasting the scores. But today Judge Winter very clearly ruled in favor of Stats and Motorola, saying game scores are facts and the NBA cannot stop them from being rebroadcast.

Although AOL was not a defendant in the case, the judge said the ruling also applied to AOL.

"It's a complete victory for Stats and Motorola--100 percent at all levels," said Andrew L. Deutsch of Piper & Marbury, who represented Stats.

The NBA issued a brief statement by Jeffrey Mishkin, an executive vice president and chief legal officer; he said the NBA would ultimately prevail, but didn't elaborate.

"We have always known that this case, which raises very complex legal issues, could not be resolved quickly. While we're disappointed by today's decision, it is just one stage in a long battle that we ultimately expect to win."

But the only court higher than the appellate court is the U.S. Supreme Court, Deutsch said, adding that he doubted the Supreme Court would agree to hear the case.

In his ruling, Winter stressed that game scores are not protected by copyright law. That's what makes this a landmark ruling: It gave the green light to AOL, Stats and Motorola, and could do the same for a host of companies wishing to broadcast instant information such as scores, stock quotes, or news, Neuburger noted.

"It's definitely applicable to things beyond sports," he said. "It would allow the free dissemination of event-related information, whether it's sports, news, financial information, gossip, anything like that."

"It's really a victory for consumers who want access to this kind of factual information," added AOL spokesman Andrew Graziani.

As with most legal issues, exactly how this one will be interpreted in the future is not completely clear. "This is a rather specific issue which involves real-time rebroadcasting," said Kevin Goering, a media lawyer at Coudert Brothers. Nonetheless, he added, "There's no question that it will generally increase the amount of freedom on the Internet.

"I think it adds to a general climate of increased freedom in cyberspace."