Wis. court rules state entities can sell exclusive video streaming rights

WISCONSIN -- A U.S. District Court in Wisconsin has ruled that state entities can sell exclusive rights to cover, through streaming video online, a government-sponsored event, including high school athletics.

The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) and American-Hifi, Inc. sued Gannett Co., Inc. and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Inc. after newspapers sought access to stream high school sporting events. The news organizations raised questions about the fee and licensing structure that the WIAA has in place. The WIAA runs state tournaments for 26 sports and has a contract granting exclusive webstreaming rights to American-Hifi.

On June 3, the court stated that the exclusive license did not violate the free press clause of the First Amendment or the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

"This decision is really about a narrow issue, which is live webcasting of entire games, and there's a weaker First Amendment argument in favor of a right to show games start to finish on the web," said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. "When you're telecasting the entire game, start to finish, it's less like a journalistic exercise and more like an entertainment production."

Robert Dreps, an attorney at Godfrey and Kahn in Madison, Wis., represented the media defendants. He said he is unsure whether any student journalists have sought and been denied any opportunity to stream a tournament game over the Internet.

The court did not rule on whether the other WIAA restrictions that more directly impacted news coverage, such as limits on the duration of video during newscasts and on the resale of game photos, violated the First Amendment. Dreps said those issues were largely mooted by later WIAA policy changes.

Todd Clark, director of communications for WIAA, said that the rules do not prevent media access for commercial or student newspapers.

"It doesn't prohibit any access whatsoever," Clark said. "The newspapers aren't claiming 'access,' they're claiming the right to do anything they want to do in this case, meaning they could live commercially stream a broadcast transmission from start to finish, which isn't access nor is it reporting, and that's what the judge agreed with."

Clark said that student journalists seeking to cover the games can use up to two minutes of video as a reporting source and can stream video through the WIAA website if they are from a WIAA affiliated school.

"Student videographers would be under the same rules with that credential, they are limited just like any other media source without permission from the association and the rights-holding entities for our tournament series," Clark said.

In 2008, the Appleton Post-Crescent streamed four football contests and received a complaint from American-Hifi, the company WIAA sold exclusive rights to under a 10-year contract beginning in 2005. The company demanded $250 and the surrender of the DVD recording from the newspaper, Dreps said.

Dreps said that it has not yet been decided whether the papers will appeal the decision.

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