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Broadcasting the World Championship

Last week’s question was “How does a 2500 player now compare with a 2500 player 20 years ago?” The most common view was that the 2500 player in 2016 is weaker than the 2500 player in 1996. But as the discussion showed, it’s not a simple topic, as measuring or even defining inflation in chess ratings is not easy.


The World Championship match is approaching – Magnus Carlsen will defend his title against Sergey Karjakin in New York from November 11-30. In the weeks to come I expect we will debate and predict what will happen over the board, but a first question is: from where will you watch the match? If you are able to get to New York and have a ringside seat, then lucky you. But I suspect most will be watching on some website. Which brings me to Agon, “the company that owns the commercials rights to organize the World Championship” and their new broadcast policy.
You can read all about it at the link, but my short version goes like this:

If your chess website wants to show the moves live, then you must install a ‘widget’ from Agon. This gets you just the moves. If an individual user on your site wants expert commentary, they must pay a fee to upgrade, 10% of which fee goes to the chess website, the other 90% to Agon, who will be providing the commentary. But what if your chess website wants to broadcast your own (non-Agon) commentators? Not allowed.

This is of course an updated version of a broadcast debate Agon kicked off at the Candidates. And what happens if websites refuse to do things Agon’s way: “They will be sued. That is what happened in March at the Candidates tournament, when several Web sites did unauthorized broadcasts. Though it takes time, the lawsuits are making their way through the courts in Moscow, where the tournament was held. World Chess has already retained counsel in New York and plans to aggressively pursue claims against anyone who tries to circumvent the official broadcast.”

My only confident prediction is that the lawyers will get ever richer (right up until the Revolution). Beyond that, Quality Chess will keep our traditional neutrality on controversial issues. In fact, I can see both sides: Agon will spend a lot of money organizing and hosting the event, so they want to keep some exclusivity, as otherwise they have a lesser product to sell to sponsors and advertisers. On the other hand, big chess sites (for example, Chess24) spend a lot of money building up their site and hiring expert commentators, and now these commentators are not allowed to talk about the games live?

For a specific poll question, I will quote from the official site: “Does Agon have the right to prohibit anyone from broadcasting the moves as they were made?”

You can interpret that question in several ways. The legal right is what will be discussed in Moscow and (potentially) New York courts. Any Russian and American legal experts about?

The moral right? You spend a fortune organizing a huge event, and other websites ‘piggyback’ on your efforts while giving you nothing. You could also try to make a case that it would be good for professional chess if Agon “won”. If instead everything is always free on the internet, then those creating the show will not get paid in full.

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  1. Kassy
    October 17th, 2016 at 17:36 | #1

    I cannot speak to international law. But in the US, the moves can and will be transmitted live or close to live. Facts cannot be copyrighted and the moves are facts.
    Similar case law in the US has shown that scores of sports games can be displayed by other TV/radio/newspaper/internet outlets. You can say 3 run homerun by Smith in the top of the 6th inning ties the game 4-4. You cannot provide video of that homerun without permission of the entity that owns the video.
    In this case, the moves are like the fact that a 3 run homerun occurred. I cannot see a video of 24 Bxd5! but I can be told it happened.
    Commentary on those facts are then of course opinion that can be expressed by anyone who wants to provide it in any forum they wish to do so.
    Agon can prevent the commentary they provide from being provided to anyone who doesn’t pay for it, but they cannot prevent others from commenting on facts.
    However, I am not a lawyer, and this is just my opinion but it is my understanding as above.
    What will happen in other countries of course depends on relevant law.

  2. Ray
    October 18th, 2016 at 06:00 | #2

    I don’t see a difference with broadcasting rights of other sports, such as soccer. In those cases too, the sports federations / clubs have sold the broadcasting exclusively to a certain broadcaster and other broadcasters are not allowed to show the same events. So what’s so special about chess that it should be an exception? The argument that ‘facts cannot be copyrighted’ sounds strange to me – how are ‘chess facts’ any different from e.g. ‘soccer facts’ of ‘basketball facts’? Especially for a country such as the USA, where even facts such as a DNA-sequence can be patented 🙂

  3. Ray
    October 18th, 2016 at 06:03 | #3

    PS: I thing the difficulty with chess is that fact and broadcasting are more or less the same – describing the move and broadcasting the move is the same. This is different for e.g. soccer. BUt I’m not a lawyer as well, so it will be very interesting to see what the courts think 🙂

  4. weng siow
    October 18th, 2016 at 06:11 | #4

    Copyright and IP is a perennial topic in the chess blogosphere where various “ignorant” statements are commonly made, usually involving the blurring of the distinction between legality and morality. I am only a lawyer from the Australian jurisdiction but certainly not an IP expert. I think will be helpful if statements and opinions stick either to law or morals.
    Copyright does not extend to facts or phenomena. So very likely (I use this phrase as I don’t think there has been a judicial ruling as yet on chess moves), broadcasting chess moves in a game cannot be legally prevented/protected. However, organisations get around this by using other rules of laws. The most common and very likely candidate will be the law of contract. If the game is conducted in an enclosed area, the organisers can control access to area by contract. As part of contract to enter and watch the game, you will very likely be asked not to transmit or communicate the moves except as licensed. This is similar to music concerts where recording of the shows are contractually unlawful.
    Although organisers cannot prevent communication of moves, they can control the broadcast of the video and audio (which is in US and Australia subject to Fair Use), copying of the official version of the moves in material form, photography etc (similar to big sporting events such as Football World Cup and the Olympics).
    Of course, difficulties still exist, firstly, this does not prevent someone from deliberately breaching…

  5. weng siow
    October 18th, 2016 at 06:12 | #5

    Of course, difficulties still exist, firstly, this does not prevent someone from deliberately breaching the contract. Secondly, organisers will have hard time preventing communication unless there is a jamming device or something similar.
    I think the above may be a good starting point for the legal discussion. Of course, on the moral/business issue, the matter is totally different. Should there be a restriction on the communication of moves in a chef game in the World Championship on moral/business grounds?
    My answer as a chess fan is no! Should other businesses be allowed to provide their own expert commentary? Yes! Would anyone from the business commercial then be expected to fund a Championship match for profit? Very likely not!
    Bear in mind that commercial tournaments such as the recent Millionaire Chess failed because it failed to attract sponsorship and today, that is mainly from broadcasting rights (which is legally protected!).

  6. weng siow
    October 18th, 2016 at 06:16 | #6

    @Ray, I am sorry but that is not how the laws of copyright evolved. You might not agree but it is the way the law of copyright is interpreted. Facts cannot be protected. The fact that batter no 3 hit a home run off the 5th ball and after 2 no balls is a fact and cannot be protected. The actual video and audio broadcast of that hit and run preserved in the material medium (digital disk) is copyrighted. If you cannot observe this distinction, then all subsequent discussions will be ultimate a waste of time.

  7. Remco G
    October 18th, 2016 at 06:54 | #7

    @Ray: the current score line, who scored in what minute etc for soccer matches is available all over the place during games. But not video. Unfortunately for chess organizers, in chess the video matters much less than the moves.

  8. Ray
    October 18th, 2016 at 07:52 | #8

    @ Remco G

    Exactly, that was the point I was trying to make. Of course I can see the distinction legally (as weng siow pointed out), but I do maintain that this is a problem for chess, because I just don’t see a good business model for any sponsor who wants to make money out of broadcasting the chess event they sponsored.

  9. Phille
    October 18th, 2016 at 08:27 | #9

    I would pay for good commentary (in fact I’m a chess24-member, although the commentary is free and I don’t watch many opening vids), but the problem is that Agon’s commentary will probably be crap.

  10. Claudio
    October 18th, 2016 at 09:47 | #10

    In my opinion the main problem is that “pirate” broadcast don’t add to the exposure of the sponsors. This might be very relevant in big media sports like football, but as Malcom Pein has sometimes noticed, this is not yet the case with chess. This being so what chess needs for the benefit of everybody, Agon and others, is the biggest exposure they can get, and that can only be achieved by broadcasting in as many platforms as possible. The problem with the sponsors can be solved if the non-official broadcasts would agree on showing logos of all sponsors, including Agon, in their broadcast.
    According to live relaying of moves, some tournaments already delay it by 15 minutes to avoid cheating, and I haven’t seen any website jumping that.

  11. Claude
    October 18th, 2016 at 10:16 | #11

    I remember Danailov sued Chessbase for what seems to be what we’re talking about here: I don’t know if posting a link is allowed: http://www.chessvibes.com/?q=reports/bulgarian-chess-federation-vs-chessbase-0-1
    otherewise google for chessvibes report.

    Remembering Moscow, I doubt very much that the official website will be able to handle the load of retransmitting the world championship match.

  12. AMADAN
    October 18th, 2016 at 10:50 | #12

    Anon has been a car crash since it has started and that has created allot of animosity towards Agon from the chess community.

    If Agon provided a better service I would be leaning towards their argument but overall the commentary has been terrible and the website crashed numerous times for the candidates. I would assume the world championship match will get significantly more traffic.

    At a minimum the companies relaying the games should be required to advertise the sponsors of the match.

  13. middlewave
    October 18th, 2016 at 12:19 | #13

    I would just like to point out that Agon actually does allow free broadcasting of the live games, under the proviso that their official widget is used (it is as simple as an embed). Even for commercial websites that provide live commentary and other services, it is fully possible for them to work as usual, except that they will need to use Agon’s widget instead of their own proprietary games viewer.

  14. Kassy
    October 18th, 2016 at 12:43 | #14

    If Agon wasn’t a train wreak from day one and realized that carrots work better than sticks, they could do a variation of this and no one would complain.
    But since they have been antagonistic and incompetent in everything they have ever done chessically, I don’t see that happening.

  15. John Shaw
    October 18th, 2016 at 13:15 | #15

    middlewave :
    I would just like to point out that Agon actually does allow free broadcasting of the live games, under the proviso that their official widget is used (it is as simple as an embed). Even for commercial websites that provide live commentary and other services, it is fully possible for them to work as usual, except that they will need to use Agon’s widget instead of their own proprietary games viewer.

    No, not exactly working as usual for other sites that usually provide their own commentary. To quote from one of the Agon links above:

    “Q: Can any site that has the widget provide its own analytics and commentary on the match?

    A: No. We worked with the World Chess Federation and top chess engines to produce an outstanding analytics tool that will be used in the widget. Live transmission of moves (in PGN files) will not be made available for sites to create their own broadcasts.”

  16. October 18th, 2016 at 19:38 | #16

    What is to stop me from watching the event on an authorized site and broadcasting my own analysis? I believe there is even precedent on chess here in the US.

  17. The Lurker
    October 18th, 2016 at 22:19 | #17

    @weng siow
    The information content of a digital storage device (as opposed to the device itself) is simply a (very large) number, or a series of numbers, in binary. And a series of numbers can always be reversibly transformed into a single unique number, and so they are equivalent. So, if you cannot copyright facts, how can you do so with a number? Is the existence of every number not a matter of mathematical fact?

    (And if one can claim numbers as intellectual property, I call dibs on 0, 1, i, e, pi, phi and gamma.)

  18. SimonB
    October 19th, 2016 at 02:40 | #18

    It’s perhaps worth noting that Kirsan appears to be a majority shareholder of Agon.
    Conflict of interest, one may think?

    I hope chess24 has it. My default viewing option.

  19. weng siow
    October 19th, 2016 at 05:27 | #19

    @The Lurker #17, firstly my example is only relevant to one type of IP protection, namely copyright. Protection of actual computer programs/codes is additionally protected in another manner. Cannot say more as I am not conversant enough and therefore do not wish to demonstrate my ignorance.
    On copyright, what I meant is that of the organiser releases the game moves in an official version in a material form subject to copyright, then no one can “copy” without permission of license.
    Of course, if the official version is electronic, then it will be a series of 1s and 0s. But if you reproduced that series of 1s and 0s culminating in a form similar or same as offical version without permission or license, then copyright has been breached.
    It is reductionist to reduce everything to their components. For that matter, if you are copying a paper suing a photocopier machine, surely there are electrons, and other particles involved and they being the matter of the universe are “facts”. Is there no copyright? Surely not!

  20. weng siow
    October 19th, 2016 at 05:35 | #20

    @Alex Relyea #16, provided there has been no “copying”, I believe there is no breach. The only question remaining is contractual as I mentioned @#4. When you signed up for the Agon “widget” and install it, did you agree not to use the content for commercial or public use?
    This is a grey area.
    Eg, you hire a DVD movie, and then discussed the movie on your blog. Have you breached IP? No. Have you breach the contract? depends on the contract.

    @SimonB #18, conflict of interest is an English concept originating from the English Court of Equity (the Chancellor of the Exchequer).
    Query: Does it apply elsewhere except the English and English-hegemony?

  21. weng siow
    October 19th, 2016 at 05:38 | #21

    BTW, for anyone interested and with access to journals, US chess player, Alisa Melekhina, graduated with a law degree specialising, I believe in IP, and has written a simple beginners’ guide to IP for chess and chess players.

  22. weng siow
    October 19th, 2016 at 05:40 | #22

    sorry, just found it cited on wikipedia’s entry on Melekhina: http://jiplp.oxfordjournals.org/content/6/10/723.abstract

  23. SimonB
    October 19th, 2016 at 07:11 | #23

    @weng siow
    Yes, it does. Obviously.
    Attempting to play the undergraduate ‘cultural hegemony’ card doesn’t work here.

  24. Ray
    October 19th, 2016 at 08:55 | #24

    @ SimonB

    Unfortunately (from my perspective) there are many countries in the world where ‘conflict of interest’ doesn’t seem to be seen as a problem, be it legally or morally. That’s probably part of the reason why Kirsan is still supported by a majority of Fide members.

  25. October 19th, 2016 at 17:18 | #25

    weng siow :
    @Alex Relyea #16, provided there has been no “copying”, I believe there is no breach. The only question remaining is contractual as I mentioned @#4. When you signed up for the Agon “widget” and install it, did you agree not to use the content for commercial or public use?

    My point was that I would use someone else’s feed to do my broadcast, or does Agon require those who buy its widget to require their users not to tell anyone the moves?

  26. October 19th, 2016 at 19:51 | #26

    Agon’s assertion that other sites can’t broadcast their own analysis is DOA in the USA, but being right doesn’t mean someone isn’t going to sue you. Lawsuits are a pain.

    Also, it’s their job to make sure their sponsors receive the widest possible exposure, something they *won’t* get via Agon’s proprietary approach (especially if Agon’s coverage and website is as wildly bad as their prior efforts).

  27. Reyk
    October 20th, 2016 at 08:46 | #27

    TCWriter :
    Agon’s assertion that other sites can’t broadcast their own analysis is DOA in the USA

    I’m not a native speaker, sorry. What does DOA mean here?

  28. Remco G
    October 20th, 2016 at 09:17 | #28

    “Dead on arrival”, meaning that it has no chance in court whatsoever.

  29. Reyk
    October 20th, 2016 at 10:40 | #29

    @Remco G

  30. Remco G
    November 4th, 2016 at 08:03 | #30

    Agon lost its court case in Moscow very comprehensively: https://chess24.com/en/read/news/chess24-win-moscow-case-announce-new-york-line-up

    “Besides, information about the chess moves is in the public domain and is not protected by law”

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