Court Decision Against Content Syndication

In a zero-surprise ruling today, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear Morris Communications’ appeal of the 11th District Court’s decision in its case with the PGA Tour. The latter had alleged that Morris was inappropriately grabbing that data from tourmanent websites and then re-selling the information, syndication-style, to other sites.

Some see this as an infringement on freedom of the press. After all, PGA scores are information that’s out there and newsworthy, so why shouldn’t a news-gathering organization be free to grab that data and do whatever they want with it, including syndicating it to web sites?

Well, it’s more complicated than that. In a prior case (between Motorola and the NBA over a similar issue) that court came up with the following five-item test:

  1. a plaintiff generates or gathers information at a cost; 
  2. the information is time-sensitive; 
  3. a defendant’s use of the information constitutes free-riding on the plaintiff’s efforts; 
  4. the defendant is in direct competition with a product or service offered by the plaintiffs; and 
  5. the ability of other parties to free-ride on the efforts of the plaintiff or others would so reduce the incentive to produce the product or service that its existence or quality would be substantially threatened

The court ruled back in 1997 that Motorola’s SportTrax service didn’t meet all these criteria — the NBA didn’t have a competing product — so it was free to continue selling it. In the current case, however, it seems clear that Morris falls down on at least the latter two points, with the PGA already selling a competing product.

Keep in mind that the PGA wasn’t averse to licensing the data to Morris. It merely objected to Morris free-riding on the data that it was collecting and then reselling the information against the PGA’s own product(s).

It is an interesting case, and one at which most folks in the emerging RSS syndication business should have a close look.