Houston Family Takes MLB to Court in Baseball Card Repackaging Dispute
You've seen them before, either at the ballpark or a store: packs of 50 baseball cards with players from a single team, but from a wide variety of years and manufacturers, intended mainly for kids and casual collectors. You may even have wondered who put them together.
For the last 11 years, a Houston family has been responsible for many of them. The Nelkins - parents Harold and Lillian and sons Todd and Ted - have been running HLT and T Sports since 1978, beginning by selling sports cards through the mail and at flea markets and graduating to a retail store in 1983.
The shop sells the usual array of collectibles, but the Nelkins' business really took off once the family began sorting (by hand) bulk commons and repackaging them by team. The venture began with the hometown Astros and eventually grew until it was supplying dozens of sports franchises from all four major sports with team packs and generating hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
Or at least it was until March, when some Major League Baseball franchises and outside vendors who run some stadium concession stands began telling the Nelkins they had been ordered to stop carrying the team packs. The league itself allegedly issued the edict, though it has yet to confirm or deny that claim.
The Nelkins don't believe they are in the wrong, as they have a letter from MLB composed in 2000 that they say gives them permission to be in the repackaging business. They're seeking a resolution by taking the league to court, suing for $225,000 in lost revenue.
Family lawyer Steve Stewart did not receive a response when he attempted to plead the family's case directly to the commissioner's office.
"The MLB doesn't have the right to restrict these sales," Stewart said to the Houston Chronicle. "These aren't licensed first sales or protected by copyright or trademark. After the first sale, anyone can resell these products."
Baseball cards, of course, are resold every day in large quantities around the world. As with any trademarked goods, these secondary market sales are protected by the first sale doctrine, which states that resellers can't be held liable for trademark infringement as long as the goods are genuine and don't cause confusion on the part of consumers.
In order for MLB to argue that its trademarks were being violated, it would have to prove that there is a material difference between the team packs and the way the baseball cards were originally sold, and that people purchasing the packs were confused as to what entity was selling the cards.