Law of Cards: Beckett Sues Zistle Over Checklists

Law of Cards: Beckett Sues Zistle Over Checklists

On April 24, Beckett Media sued Zistle (a website that proclaims it's the "easiest way to organize and trade your cards online"), alleging that Zistle stole a variety of Beckett "checklists." Within its complaint, Beckett included a hodgepodge of claims it previously asserted in other lawsuits against other alleged copyright infringers in the past (MWP Software/Matthew Perry, SaintSoft LLC/John Kountz and Check Out My Cards), but the meat of the Zistle case is copyright infringement.

Paragraphs 15 and 17 of the complaint outline Beckett’s position.

15. In Spring 2014, Plaintiff discovered that the checklist data offered by Defendant on its website has been directly copied from Plaintiff’s Copyrighted Works which can be accessed through www.beckett.com. Additionally, Defendant invites users to submit checklists, then publishes the checklists on its website, including checklists copied from Plaintiff.

….

17. Defendant offers the same card checklists that have been copyrighted by Plaintiff. Despite having not being authorized to do so, and never requesting, nor receiving permission from Beckett, Defendant copied verbatim and republished significant portions of the Copyrighted Works.

Notably while Beckett alleged copyright infringement, it provided no evidence of Zistle’s infringement. No screenshots -- nothing. Also, while Beckett attached copies of its copyright registration certificates to the complaint, it did not provide examples of the works those certificates cover. So, Beckett does not provide us with a side-by-side analysis of the alleged infringement.

This is frustrating to me. I am a plaintiff's attorney that litigates intellectual property cases, including copyright cases. In my copyright complaints, I include a side-by-side analysis of the copyrighted work and the infringing work. This way, the judge, the defendant, media and the public can look at the case and see that it has merit.

From Beckett's bare bones complaint, on the other hand, you can't assess the specific strength of this lawsuit.

That being said, I can assess the strength of a generic copyright lawsuit against generic checklists (i.e., a complete listing of cards in either numerical or alphabetical order).

And my assessment is: any copyright lawsuit against generic checklists is a loser.

It's a basic tenet of copyright law that you can’t copyright facts. The most analogous case is the 1991 Supreme Court decision Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co. That case involved two rival phone book companies in a copyright battle over the alleged copying of phone book listings. The Supreme Court held in Feist that information/facts alone without a minimum of creativity could not be protected by copyright. So, if you copy pages of someone else’s phone book, and all it has is an alphabetical listing of name followed by addresses and phone numbers, those are facts, and facts cannot be copyrighted.

Here, if checklists are just a listing of cards in numerical or alphabetical order, there is no minimum creativity used by the author. That’s just a factual listing, and therefore cannot be protected.

Now, if facts are organized in an originally creative fashion, that is potentially copyrightable. So, if someone created a trading card checklist in a creative fashion and/or included additional creative information within that list then that could be protectable by copyright.

Nowadays, phone book publishers do just this. To get around Feist, they insert false listings into their phone books. Those false listings allegedly have a modicum of originality/creativity within them. Therefore, if a rival wholesale copies an entire phone book with a sufficient number of false (and creatively original) listings, then that could be copyright infringement.

Analogously, if a trading card checklist included false listings and the alleged infringer copied those listings then that could be copyright infringement. Fictitious card listings however defeat the purpose of checklists since collectors rely upon checklists to ensure their collections are complete. If a checklist provider continually had erroneous listings, collectors would most likely find another source for checklists.

For this lawsuit, I expect Beckett will argue that it worked hard to create its checklists, so it should get some type of protection. In fact, Paragraph 16 does just this:

16. …Beckett’s database contains millions of rows of data and millions of pieces of data within those rows. Beckett has expended large amounts of time and money to categorize this data into a format that allows its users to easily search and organize the data. Beckett has independently formulated unique pricing data for the sports memorabilia. Beckett provides access to this data for a fee, and there is a market for licenses to access and use checklists and pricing data. Defendant’s actions have caused Beckett to suffer damages and lost profits in excess of $5,000.00.

This is what is called a "sweat of the brow" argument: I worked hard, so I deserve some type of protection. The Supreme Court in Feist, however, rejected this argument. No matter how hard someone worked, if all he or she did was collect "facts," that is not protectable.

Legal aside: While it’s not relevant to its copyright claim, keep in mind that Beckett’s "large amount of time and money" it allegedly spent on creating checklists (and pricing data which appears not to be at issue in this lawsuit) is alleged for all of the works Beckett created, not just the checklists at issue here. Again, it’s not relevant, but I wouldn’t mind seeing how long it spent on creating the checklists at issue here.

I'll reserve my final judgment until I can see more into this case. But, if this is a generic checklist lawsuit, it would not shock me if Beckett loses.

This case also raises two interesting issues:

  • Is this just the first "checklist" lawsuit that we’ll see?
  • What will the trading card manufacturers' position be? I mean, it’s technically "their cards" and "their lists." So what really does Beckett claim it owns?

Zistle’s response should come within the next two months, so hopefully that’ll give more insight into the case. And it will help me better assess the strengths of the case.

Legal aside: Hey Zistle – Show us the checklists at issue!

The information provided in Paul Lesko's "Law of Cards" column is not intended to be legal advice, but merely conveys general information related to legal issues commonly encountered in the sports industry. This information is not intended to create any legal relationship between Paul Lesko, Simmons Hanly Conroy or any attorney and the user. Neither the transmission nor receipt of these website materials will create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the readers.

The views expressed in the "Law of Cards" column are solely those of the author and are not affiliated with Simmons Hanly Conroy. You should not act or rely on any information in the "Law of Cards" column without seeking the advice of an attorney. The determination of whether you need legal services and your choice of a lawyer are very important matters that should not be based on websites or advertisements.

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Paul Lesko has litigated intellectual property for over 15 years. Don’t hold the fact that Paul is a lawyer against him, he’s also a rabid baseball and college basketball fan, and an avid baseball card collector. Paul can be found on Twitter @Paul_Lesko and Google+.

User Comments

  1. The biggest thing some sites have done to make themselves vulnerable to lawsuits like this that people just wholesale copy & paste the text right off Beckett’s site. As a result, all the abbreviations, truncations and naming conventions that Beckett used when building their checklists is repeated. If sites would do the bare minimum of cleaning up the listings they have copied so that they are, in fact, just the facts rather than a character by character duplication, they would be better off. Beckett would still sue them (because Beckett is just another company to have sold its soul to “invenstors” who have no knowledge or interest in the company’s particular field or market), but at least the suit would hold no water whatsoever.

    If Beckett’s listing for a card says this:

    2005 Upper Deck Hall of Fame Signs of Cooperstown Quads Autograph Gold #BSAY Banks/Ozzie/Apar/Yount

    The other site damn well better say something more like this:

    2005 Upper Deck Hall of Fame Signs of Cooperstown Quad Autographs Gold #BSAY Ernie Banks / Ozzie Smith / Luis Aparicio / Robin Yount

    I suspect a lot of the “errors” in Beckett’s catalog that they have refused to correct for the last 20 years are exactly those kinds of deliberate mistakes mentioned in the article and referenced in previous lawsuits. It is up to the other checklist sites not to reproduce those errors. They are bad for the hobby as they propagate misinformation. I’m one of the world’s few collectors of Hensley Meulens cards, and both Beckett and the Standard Catalog have erroneously listed an error for his 1990 Classic card for as long as the checklist has been documented. The error card does not exist and is a real annoyance when a player collector spends years chasing a card that doesn’t exist because it was included as a copy-protection mechanism.

  2. Topps produces checklists for their products. How can Beckett claim they created it?

  3. It won’t be the information Beckett is claiming they own, it is the arrangement of the information, or the “presentation” they use. It is particularly easy to identify Beckett checklist data from the late 1990s to mid-00s because they did a lot of abbreviating and truncating to save space. It is most likely those listings that Beckett will use to prove their case. Other sites are reproducing Beckett’s very specific version of the checklists, and that is what will likely win the case for them. If the offending sites just had a higher threshold of data quality, the whole issue could have been avoided.

  4. This seems like a waste of time for Beckett. I currently use Zistle to organize my cards and have completed a few trades on there as well. If you were to go to Zistle’s site you would find many “missing cards” from the checklists, however, members can add missing cards and their information as well as pictures. As Patrick pointed out, Topps -along with every other card collecting company- supply their own checklists, so I really don’t understand how this lawsuit is beneficial for Beckett.

  5. I think it’s pretty obvious that Beckett is simply trying to remove a competitor. They should spend more time fixing the MANY errors and omissions in their checklists than worry about a competitor that few people have ever even heard of…this giving it much more promotion by word of mouth.

    I have been trying to get Beckett to fix some of it’s NASCAR checklists for years- since around 2000- yet they can’t be bothered. This is even with me offering them photographs of my own extensive collection, they still say “it doesn’t exist”.

  6. Beckett is failing to provide what collectors want, and are largely unresponsive to user feedback when it comes to improving their system. The result is several sites popping up, built and maintained by the very customer base Beckett has ignored. Unfortunately, almost all of those sites made the mistake of using Beckett’s data as a quick way to populate their own databases, without cleaning up the data first, which gives Beckett a easy road to shutting down any potential competition.

    Because Beckett is no longer owned and run by hobby people, they don’t care about the “community”, they only care about the bottom line. These other sites, by catering more directly to the online collecting community, are a direct thread to Beckett’s bottom line.

    From Beckett’s perspective, they have an opportunity to smash competitors who are eating into their share of the market. What they don’t see, from the hobby’s perspective, is that they are making themselves the villain and directly attacking the customers they should be serving. I contribute to several of the sites in question, because Beckett does not serve my needs as a collector. They don’t cover the international card market and they are always years late getting minor league sets added to their database. I worry about sites being shut down after all the time and effort I put into them, and all of my work being lost because someone else copied & pasted a bunch of Beckett checklists without first cleaning the data. Propagating bad Beckett data doesn’t help anyone. And Beckett has a lot of bad data.

  7. As I read Beckett’s complaint more closely, I notice that they are not entirely factual in Paragraph 16:

    “Beckett provides access to this data for a fee, and there is a market for licenses to access and use checklists and pricing data.”

    Beckett does NOT charge a fee for access to their checklists. Anyone can search the website and access all of the checklist information they offer without even needing to register for the site. What Beckett charges for are the collection management features and extra sorting and searching options (as well as the pricing, which doesn’t – or at least shouldn’t – figure into this lawsuit).

    So effectively, Beckett has been giving away this information for free. And I know for a fact that Zistle neither 100% reproduces Beckett’s information, nor does Beckett offer 100% of the checklists that Zistle has in their system. There are some technicalities here that might offer Zistle some relief. I am also curious if they would fall under any sort of protections that might be available to web hosts or service providers against the actions of their users or customers; after all, nearly the entire Zistle database content has been built by users and not the actual staff of Zistle.

  8. Personally I thought most people at Zistle had been getting their info from cardboardconnection.com or direct from Topps checklists on the cards, or from Topps website (or Panini, Upper Deck or whoever) since Beckett requires a membership to even view their checklists now days.

  9. You can still see Beckett’s checklist data without a login, but you are limited to 25 cards per page. And you are probably correct, that most of Zistle’s data does not come from Beckett. A primary example of that is how lots of the sets seem to be assembled at Zistle one card at a time as collectors were adding them. There were, and likely still are, lots of incomplete checklists there. What I’m now curious about is whether Beckett is just arbitrarily attempting to say it owns all checklists anywhere, or whether they will actually be going after a defense of their particular arrangement of the data being reproduced.

    I do hope I haven’t been making Beckett’s case for them with my comments. They really are not looking intelligent enough to make those cases themselves, as very little accurate information is included in their complaints. And given Paul’s earlier article about them effectively plagiarizing their own lawsuits to throw at each opponent, they may not even know what any of the other sites really have. They may just be firing off a barrage of nuisance lawsuits in an attempt to get all the other places to roll over.

  10. This is a bogus lawsuit. The users of Zistle have manually entered the information from cards they owned. Zistle has many incomplete checklists because it is all user entered.

  11. beckett is a joke there checklists are incomplete, i subscribed to them for one month,and they didnt have half the cards i had they are a complete joke and rip off.zistle i am sure they have more cards then they do. and if they dont you are allowed to enter them yourself. zistle is a great website.

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