It's hard to feel a great deal of sympathy for professional athletes who rake in millions, but should the companies getting fat on fantasy football, baseball and basketball be free to use their accomplishments without paying the players?

Yahoo thinks so. The NFL Player's Association doesn't. The result? Yahoo has sued the NFLPA for free access to player stats, publicity pics and other publicly available content.

Yahoo is emboldened by the recent success of CBS Interactive, which a federal appeals court ruled had the right to use NFL player names and stats free.

This followed another landmark ruling in the case pitting CBC Distribution and Marketing against the Major League Baseball Player's Association. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of CBC in that case, too.

The stakes are high for companies organizing fantasy sports competitions. According to the CBC case documents, 13 million to 15 million people participate in fantasy football, generating $1 billion of business a year.

The Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates that 27 million people in the U.S. play in some fantasy league. In 2005, the Major League Baseball Player's Association granted an exclusive license to Advance Media "for exploitation via all interactive media," leading to the CBC lawsuit.

That court recognized a fine distinction between exploiting a player's image to sell a product (a bobble-head doll, for example) and using his performance statistics in a fantasy game.

However, one legal expert expects that the issue will have to ultimately be settled in the U.S. Supreme Court, since rights-of-publicity is a state issue, and each state has its own way of balancing this against First Amendment rights.

I have to side with the fantasy folks on this one -- stats are public information, and we Bill James wannabes find them crucial to the enjoyment of watching baseball. What's a discussion without stats? The View.

Fantasy games can only help to strengthen the fans' attachment to pro sports, so I think that this fight could in the long run harm the players more than help them, by discouraging fan involvement.

For now, you are free to play ball without paying the piper.


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