The Buffalo News Tuesday, September 7, 1999
COMMENTARY -- JIM KELLEY
The letter came via fax. There was a follow-up via certified mail, return receipt requested. It was from the National Hockey League and had all the weight a corporate giant with cash and a full-time legal staff could muster.
The recipient? Jeffrey Spring, a young man who lives in Buffalo, sells books for a living and follows hockey and the Buffalo Sabres for fun. Spring is also a person who wants desperately to right what he believes is a terrible wrong.
It's why he founded nogoal.com and why he's in trouble with the NHL.
www.nogoal.com is a web site dedicated to the proposition that Brett Hull's Stanley Cup Game 6 overtime tally vs. the Buffalo Sabres on June 21, 1999, was not a legal goal and that the Stanley Cup should never have been awarded to the Dallas Stars. The site, along with a company that manufactured and sold "No Goal!" T-shirts, was mentioned in this newspaper a few weeks back.
Within days, the NHL came down hard. A letter from Anita K. Andrade, an NHL staff attorney from NHL Enterprises, L.P., cited Spring for "unauthorized use of properties belonging to the NHL, the Buffalo Sabres and the Dallas Stars in a commercial matter." It specifically mentioned the (No Goal) T-shirts, hats and bumper stickers Spring was selling (a part of an effort to keep the Web site viable) and the No Goal Web site itself.
It said Spring had "willfully violated the NHL's, the Buffalo Sabres and the Dallas Stars hockey clubs' property rights" and that his actions "immeasurably damage the value of the Marks (properties) because of the global exposure a product enjoys when placed on the internet."
The letter ordered Spring to cease and desist. The NHL also demanded he surrender all his T-shirts, caps and bumper stickers and that he account for all sales so that the NHL may assess damages. It said he should also provide written assurance he will not do misdeeds again AND "furnish names and addresses of each person or entity that he knows is or may also be involved in the manufacture, distribution or sale of infringing products." He must also admit that he has done wrong.
Whew, even the president of the United States didn't get hit that hard! Spring acknowledged he was probably wrong to use the items but he thought they were in the public domain. He immediately pulled all for-sale products off his Web site, but he kept the site operating, arguing that Hull's goal really was a mistake and that the NHL needed to recognize it.
The league responded with another letter telling him not to use any NHL copyrighted items on the site. Essentially no Stanley Cup image with the international "no" slash through it and no picture of Hull in the crease and Hasek and the puck.
The picture is one of several seen around the world depicting Hull with his foot a good 12 inches into the goal crease and blocking Hasek from using his stick. It shows the puck [outside] the crease and states the apparent rules infraction, a rule the NHL said didn't apply and has since dismissed.
"Originally we thought we would sell a few items for fun and that would help us pay to keep the site going," Spring said. "When the letter came we made changes (deleting the Cup from the bumper sticker and the picture from the shirts). I discussed it with an attorney who is a family friend, but he's not a specialist in copyright or anything. I'm still really not sure I'm doing anything wrong."
Spring, who operates a book store called Flight Into Fantasy on Clinton Street, said he'd like to have some firm legal advice but doesn't have the resources right now. He said he's redesigning the bumper sticker using a generic buffalo and trying to come up with a new idea for the shirt, but he can't understand why he can't show the picture of the controversial goal on his site or even quote the NHL rule book as to why rule 78, Protection of the Goalkeeper, does or does not apply (the NHL says the rule book is also copyrighted).
"It doesn't seem right," Spring said. "A lot of people look at it (the picture) and then they understand that it (the goal) shouldn't have counted."
But if he can't show the picture, what's the point?
The NHL has a right to protect its copyrighted material, but seems to be taking this one to the extreme. The picture illustrates the controversy. It was taken by a person covering a news event. It was published in publications (and on Web sites) around the world and Spring credits the photographer and the organization he works for (the Associated Press). But because he happens to believe the NHL is wrong, the league appears to be going after him with all the legal might it can muster. Legally, the league is likely within its rights, but the NHL needs to be careful here. Public reaction has a way of backing lawyers into a corner.
The goal will always be controversial. Spring, and others, will always argue that the NHL made a mistake. Controversy is part of what makes sports entertaining, but crushing dissent and taking Spring to court could be a huge mistake.
"I know I can't afford to fight them on my own," he said, "but maybe we might set up a contribution (site) for a No Goal defense fund." Then Spring could post an image of his Web site being struck down by generic hockey pucks thrown by corporate suits on Sixth Avenue while he looks down while being crucified on a cross of Brand X hockey sticks.
NHL Properties would have a difficult time going after that one.