A goal in the Net

New broadcasting media is leading to a wealth of opportunity, writes Mark Drimie. Mark Drimie is a solicitor at Denton Hall Media & Technology Group.

The next 12 months will be an important turning point for digital media in the UK. The appearance of digital TV and the potential for new pay-per-view and on-demand services will transform the media landscape.

Online media and the Internet are leading the way. With thousands of "surfers" accessing the Carling Soccer Premiership Web site each week, sport looks like it may provide the "killer application".

Most fans take access to sports coverage in the media for granted, but to the sports bodies and other relevant rights hold-ers there are a host of potential problems and conflicts. In a recent US case the National Basketball Association (NBA) brought proceedings for an injunction blocking Motorola from selling hand-held pagers which displayed updated scores of "live" NBA games.

The NBA claimed copyright violation and misappropriation of its "hot news" arguing that, at the very least, it had the rights to own the scores and statistics until a game was over. However, the court held that the defendants had not unlawfully taken the NBA's property by transmitting "real time" NBA scores.

The judgment has been appealed but it demonstrates the growing awareness of sports governing bodies of the power and importance of new media platforms and the potential uncertainty over the parameters of rights ownership.

Already, on both sides of the Atlantic, the application of existing intellectual property rights and broadcasting laws to Web sites and other online services have begun to be tested in court and Internet transmission rights have become a major element in any relevant commercial negotiations.

It is only a matter of time before live sports coverage becomes commonplace on the Internet. Sportsline USA's programme Baseball Live! utilises the capabilities of Netscape's browser and Macromedia's Shockwave to integrate real-time statistics into a graphical simulation that depicts the action of US Major League Baseball games in progress.

The same approach is envisaged in the UK of cricket, football and rugby matches.

Sportsline.com's radio station began broadcasting in July 1996 and is the first all-sports radio station on the Internet. The football fanatic might soon be able to hear Manchester United playing Chelsea on his or her computer with all relevant match, past statistics and results available at the touch of a button.

With television and radio going digital in the next few years, broadcasters who were once said to be dinosaurs in the new-media world of the Internet are now moving quickly to incorporate new media into their core businesses – through their own services such as the BBC's "beeb" project, or by buying into or joint venturing with the more successful online service providers.

Sports merchandising is a major global market and the use of the Internet for e-commerce and online retailing offers great potential for further revenue generation. With the best service providers promising less than 2 per cent downtime, a Web site can allow customers throughout the world to transact with a supplier almost 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Establishing a Web site can be done quickly and cheaply but developing a viable commercial service is likely to need a major investment and legal input will be required from the earliest stages.

Different suppliers might be more effective and more cost-effective at providing certain services but it could be preferable to buy an all-in-one solution from a single company.

Web site development and hosting agreements can become complex and there are count-less hurdles to be negotiated, covering design, server hosting, acceptance testing, licensing and ownership, trade secrets and confidentiality, liability, termination and future development issues to name but a few.

Content on the site must be cleared in the same way as any other medium and online contracts need to address the basic legal formalities of offer and acceptance, signature and payment, governing law, jurisdiction and dispute resolution.

President Clinton's recent initiative for "a global framework for electronic commerce", and similar EC proposals high light the importance of electronic payment systems (digital cash), digital signatures, regulation and content filtering, data protection, privacy and tax.

There is, therefore, the need for an intelligent partnership between law and technology with new Internet and online projects. The potential for growth in this area is huge. It is likely that when the World Cup kicks off in France this summer an estimated 20 million fans per day will be following what goes in the net on the Net.