NEW YORK — The Internet, not the baseball diamond, isthe setting for Major League Baseball’s latest struggle with itsfans. And the issues at stake are not balls and strikes, but copyrightand free speech.
An independent student journalist received a cease-and-desistletter last week from Major League Baseball Properties demandingthat he deactivate his Mets Web site because of a copyright andtrademark violations.
Bryan Hoch, a 20-year-old student at the State University of New York atRockland, designed MetsOnline.net in 1996 before the team hadan official Web page. In the past six years, the site’s originaleditorial content, multimedia clips, fan forums and links to otherMajor League Baseball sites have made it extremely popular, generatingbetween 10,000 and 15,000 hits per day.
On July 25, Major League Baseball Properties informed Hochvia e-mail that he needed to take down his Web site or face legalaction. The group, which protects baseball clubs’ logos, copyrightsand trademarks, alleged that Hoch’s site was in violation of theAnticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act.
The e-mail demand stated that Hoch’s site had "a bad faithintent to profit" through the use of Mets trademarks. Theorder also claimed that Hoch’s site intentionally diverted consumersfrom the Mets official page.
Hoch took down MetsOnline.net on July 30, leaving only a letterof explanation to visitors and a log of supportive postings fromfans.
The letter on the site reads, "We have never, in six yearsof operation, held an intent to profit (much less a bad intentto profit!)." The only source of revenue on the site wasa discontinued line of T-shirts featuring the MetsOnline.net logo,not that of the Mets team. The total profit from the shirts was$16.
"No one is looking to make money on this deal," Hochsaid.
Major League Baseball Properties claims confusion with theofficial Mets Web page, Mets.com, is a part of its problem withHoch’s site.
Pat Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball Properties,said that MetsOnline.net was too similar in "design, lookand feel" to Mets.com. Major League Baseball officials saidthey must guard their trademarks carefully or they could losethem.
"We don’t want fans not out there talking about baseballand chatting about baseball and having fan forums; all that stuffis fantastic," Courtney said.
Nevertheless, the shutdown of the site has closed a venue throughwhich thousands of Mets fans have expressed themselves.
The site not only allowed Mets fans to communicate with eachother, but also was an archive of alternative coverage of thesporting events. Unpaid journalists contributed to the site ona daily basis.
"It is a great way for journalists who are on the fringe,working for smaller publications, to get their work out thereand possibly be seen," Hoch said.
MetsOnline.net is not the first unofficial team Web site to be shutdown by Major League Baseball Properties because of trademarkdisputes. A Houston-based site, AstrosDaily.com, was ordered tocease-and-desist July 5. The site’s creator, Ray Kerby, compliedand eventually reached an agreement with Major League BaseballProperties in order to put his site back on the Web.
Both Hoch and Major League Baseball Properties are eager toreach a compromise and get the content back on the Web.
If Hoch is willing to make concessions about his site, suchas taking down all photos containing Mets trademarks and changinghis domain name, Major League Baseball Properties will not pursuelegal action against him, they say.
Giving up the domain name that he has had for six years isnot a major concern of Hoch’s. "I think readers will cometo good content, no matter what you call it," he said.
"We are working toward an agreement and I’m hopeful thatwe will be able to reach one in the upcoming days," Hochsaid.