The 'lords of baseball' strike out

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the league's threat to sue Slingbox would enflame fans who only want to watch their teams play ball.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read
The original Napster is long dead and buried but, like Banquo's ghost, continues to haunt the tech landscape.

The unsettled legacy of the file-sharing technology Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker released on this date in 1999, still informs the spats that periodically crop up between content owners and technology providers. Unfortunately, the lessons learned are usually the wrong ones.

So it is that the giant moneymaking complex which goes by the name of Major League Baseball is hinting about turning its lawyers loose on Slingbox over a dispute that professional baseball would love to portray as a struggle over copy protection.

A lawyer representing the league recently questioned the legality of Slingbox's "placeshifting" technology, which lets people access their cable or satellite TV boxes from remote locations on a computer or mobile device.

This is more than an errant brushback pitch. Baseball's displeasure first came to light a year ago when MLB came up with the novel idea that subscribers who wish to watch games on multiple devices should pay multiple times.

You don't need to be Nostradamus to forecast the outraged fan reaction that would follow a lawsuit.

"Of course, what they are doing is not legal," says Michael Mellis, general counsel of MLB Advanced Media, the division responsible for MLB.com and its MLB.TV package. He added that while the league has not yet decided upon its next step, "there's no guarantee that Slingbox will be around next year. It's a start-up."

Indeed, it is--and a start-up that invented an ingenious product that qualifies for the "ain't this cool" tag. To be sure, there's no way of knowing whether Slingbox is destined to become the next Apple or ReplayTV. But even if Mellis' sniffy putdown comes true and Slingbox fails to survive, the technology it helped pioneer is here to stay.

I'm reminded of the music industry's refusal to acknowledge the game-changing impact of peer-to-peer file sharing technology until it was too late. The studios finally won their court battle against Napster, but it was a pyrrhic victory. The music industry suffered a more grievous wound when it failed to find a way to profit from the new digital technologies that would ultimately undermine its established business model.

You'd think MLB and its hired hands would have learned from recent history, but don't overestimate the insight of the lords of baseball. Baseball thinks of itself as America's national pastime, but the game's well-chronicled troubles make you wonder how long it will command that moniker--especially when episodes like this one erupt.

By contrast, the National Basketball Association doesn't have any problem with Slingbox. In fact, the NBA's marketing-savvy commissioner, David Stern, went so far as to invite Sling to demonstrate its product a year ago at the league's NBA Tech Summit. He sees it as just another marketing tool to strengthen existing fan loyalties.

Someone should get MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to pay closer attention. Instead of spending his time fretting about the day Barry Bonds hits his 756th homer, Selig should dread the blowback that will result from any move against Slingbox. I can't predict which teams will play in the World Series, but you don't need to be Nostradamus to forecast the outraged fan reaction that would follow a lawsuit.

So far, there's no legal precedent to suggest that Slingbox violates the law. As more fans pay for cable or broadband packages and then install these set-top boxes to watch their local team play, the league is one step behind the people who pay its salary. Baseball may sell transmission rights to specific geographical locations, but if fans pay local programmers for the content, where's the harm? We're hardly talking about the second coming of Napster.

As always, the real issue here is money. Major League Baseball sells a television package, ranging in price from $80 to $110 a year, which lets viewers watch any out-of-market game on the Internet. In an interview with my colleague Erica Ogg, MLB.com's chief executive Bob Bowman questioned the legality of transmitting TV channels over the Internet, saying he believes the Slingbox is a "delivery-shifting" device.

If Bowman truly thinks the league has a case, then he should demand his day in court. It wouldn't be baseball's biggest-ever mistake. It would rank as only one in a long list of unfortunate blunders.