Facebook Twitter

NBA sues N.Y. Times over sale of playoff photos

SHARE NBA sues N.Y. Times over sale of playoff photos

The National Basketball Association has sued The New York Times Co. for selling a collection of five photographs from the 1999 NBA playoffs, saying that the sale violated the terms of the contract written on the back of the press passes of newspaper photographers.

The lawsuit, filed in New York state Supreme Court, argues that the press credentials limit The Times' "use of NBA photographs to 'news coverage' of the specific games for which the credential was issued."

The suit reflects a new battlefront in a continuing struggle between news organizations and sports leagues, arenas, theaters and other entertainment forums over the line between news gathering protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution, and the infringement of the property rights of the people paying for and producing the events that journalists cover.

But the emergence of the Internet as a worldwide mass medium — coupled with technological developments that are increasing the capabilities of paging systems, cellular phones and personal digital assistants — has increased the stakes in these battles, according to legal experts.

In recent years, legal debates have centered on whether game developments can be distributed instantaneously by pager (they can), who has the right to post the shot-by-shot progress in golf tournaments on Internet sites (generally, the organization arranging the tournament and its licensees), and whether the image of an athlete can be used to promote a newspaper's sports coverage (it can).

The basketball league, which had been one of the parties suing to prevent the distribution of real-time game information by pager, filed its suit on Friday, several weeks after The Times began promoting the sale of these pictures.

The basketball collection is part of a larger offering of images taken by photographers of The New York Times and sold on its Internet site. The photos include the moon landing in 1969, civil rights struggles and images of what the online brochure refers to as "the golden age of baseball." The five-photograph basketball collection sells for $900, or $801 for home-delivery subscribers. Individual photos can be purchased for $195.

The NBA's suit against The Times is narrowly drawn as a breach-of-contract issue.

Richard W. Buchanan, the league's general counsel, said: "To me, our view is that The Times is selling photographs of NBA game action on their Internet site without our permission in violation of their agreement not to do so. We've asked them to stop, but they continue."

The league has for years engaged its own photographers to take pictures of games, which are sold through the NBA's chosen outlets. At the same time, many newspapers, including The Times, have resold their game images on news and syndication services or as images in books or on posters or calendars.

George Freeman, the assistant general counsel of The Times, said: "The NBA has a huge publicity machine trying to gain attention for the league all over the world. When a company tried to distribute the scores of games on a real-time basis, they claimed they owned the scores." The league lost that suit.

"Now," Freeman continued, "they claim that we can't sell photographs — on the basis of a credential that photographers don't read, don't sign, and are forced to wear to do their jobs. They love publicity, but not so immediate that media could compete with their Web site or so historic that media could compete with the NBA's desire to monopolize all sales of products. They want to allow us a tiny sliver of coverage limited to the day after" the event.

The NBA game press credentials include the stricture that "the use of any photograph, film, tape or drawing of the game, player interviews or other arena activities taken or made by the accredited organization of the individual for whom this credential has been issued shall be limited to news coverage of the game."