As the digital world has grown, so has Minor League Baseball's place in it. Now the sport is taking steps to make sure its ability to exclusively broadcast games online is protected.
Streaming video, a novelty for the industry just a few years ago, has become a central piece to its online presence. Minor League Baseball's partnership with Major League Baseball Advanced Media has provided every team the opportunity to run highlights on their websites and has made over 3,500 games this season available to view live through an MiLB.TV subscription.
In an effort to protect its digital rights, Minor League Baseball has hired the Washington D.C. law firm Meyer, Klipper & Mohr to lobby on its behalf as Congress considers the first major overhaul to copyright law since 1976. The law firm specializes in intellectual property, internet and technology, and ensuring that Minor League Baseball retains its ability to exclusively broadcast games—and that violators of its copyright are prosecuted—will be the group’s top priority as Congress considers revising the Copyright Act of 1976. The website Politico first reported the hiring and noted that it is the first time Minor League Baseball has retained a congressional lobbyist.
"If we can't sufficiently protect our rights, then it is a revenue stream that could be compromised," said Minor League Baseball vice president Stan Brand, who works out of Washington, D.C., and is in charge of government relations activities. "We're going to stream around 3,500 games this year. We sell a package to fans and customers, and while the threat isn't imminent, any change in the law that diminishes our ability to protect that obviously would hurt us."
The threat of online pirating has been prevalent since Minor League Baseball began streaming games online in 2010 and increased its efforts to include all Triple-A teams in 2011. Two years ago at the Winter Meetings in Dallas, Brand and MLB Advanced Media CEO Bob Bowman discussed the threat of online pirating and its financial consequences. In a speech to minor league team and league officials, Brand warned of "foreign-based and foreign-operated websites that pirate our copyrighted works and intellectual property, in effect stealing our products and the revenue they generate and diminishing our brands. As fast as law enforcement can shut these sites down they reemerge on another site, sometimes within minutes."
Brand spoke in support of the "Stop Online Piracy Act," the since-defeated bill that would have allowed the Department of Justice to seek felony penalties for violations of U.S. copyright laws but also stoked fears of censorship throughout much of the internet industry. In his speech, Brand described the legislation as "an important tool in the fight against pirated copyrighted works and one that we and MLB Advanced Media, believe is essential to protect our investment in our intellectual property."
Minor League Baseball's stance on the importance of prosecuting copyright violators hasn't changed, and Brand said they want to be prepared to address the issues that may protect their business.
"We get lost a little bit in the debate because the big content producers like Hollywood and others sort of dominate it," Brand said in an interview. "We want people to understand there is a small business impact on an entity like ours. It's not all about movie and television. As the internet grows and we try to develop our digital products, we want to make sure we have an economic basis for doing that."