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Yahoo sues NFL players group over fantasy stats

Internet company contends it shouldn't be forced to pay royalties for use of players' names, statistics, photos, and other information in its online fantasy football game.

Yahoo's StatTracker, a premium service, provides fantasy team owners statistical updates on players moments after they're involved in plays (click image for closer look). Yahoo

Yahoo has filed a lawsuit against the NFL Players Association, contending that it shouldn't be forced to pay royalties for using players' names, statistics, and photos in its online fantasy football game because the information is publicly available.

The complaint (PDF), which was filed Monday in U.S. District Court for Minnesota, alleges that the players group has threatened to sue the Internet giant if it doesn't pay licensing fees for the information. Yahoo had licensing agreements with the players union for previous football seasons, but the last of those deals expired on March 1, according to the complaint.

Yahoo claims it no longer needs the union's permission to use the players' information, citing an April court decision in a similar case between the players group and CBS Interactive (the parent company of CNET). The court in that case found that CBS Interactive didn't have to pay for use of football players' names or statistics because the information was already in the public domain. The players association is currently appealing that decision.

Major League Baseball lost a similar case in 2007 to CBC Distribution and Marketing--a Missouri company that sells fantasy sports products via the Web, e-mail, regular mail, and phone. MLB's Internet media arm, later joined by the pro-baseball players' union, had claimed that CBC was using baseball players' names and statistics without a license, thereby violating the players' rights to publicity under state intellectual property laws.

CBC won at the district court level and again at the appeals court level, which held that the company's "first amendment rights in offering its fantasy baseball products supersede the players' rights of publicity."

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that Yahoo's fantasy game business does not violate any rights of publicity owned or controlled by the players group, and prevent the players group from interfering with or threatening Yahoo's fantasy game business.

As many as 15 million people participate in fantasy football leagues, generating more than $1 billion a year in revenue, according to court documents filed in that case.

Carl Francis, director of communications for the NFL Players Association, declined to comment on the lawsuit.