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NHL: The All-Important Details


From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to the NHL’s new Terms of Service agreement, the trick this week has been to sort through volumes of information to find the relevant details.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is certainly the more widely compelling story. It began as an awareness campaign for ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and has spread far and wide. It seems that anyone with a recognizable face or name is fair game for a challenge. In the NHL, the names of hockey players, management, owners, league executives and journalists have all popped up with videos and photos of dousings accompanied by challenges to others to get doused.

Beyond hockey, you can also find Hollywood celebrities posting their videos and challenging each other. Of course you don’t have to be a celebrity to participate, but your tweets and videos will probably get more views. The primary platforms for the challenges are also the most used social network sites: Twitter and Facebook. This is where the details come in. At least one person familiar to Sharks fans challenged someone who had already been challenged:

Actually, joining Twitter would not be enough for Drew Remenda to know who exactly had been challenged. There are so many people involved now that you would have to join and read Twitter for several hours a day to keep track. Even a standard Twitter search only gives you a sampling. Many videos are being posted without a helpful hashtag.

That is excellent news for ALS research. Awareness campaigns take some criticism for creating more noise than progress, but this campaign at least has paid some dividends for the cause. In the first couple weeks of the campaign, the ALS Association received $1.25 million in donations, an enormous jump for the same time period last year. While the challenge does have a donation in lieu of dousing component, it is unlikely that most of that money came from people who preferred not to have a bucket of ice water dumped on them. Even if it did not start out as a fund raiser, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has done an excellent job of raising both awareness and money for a good cause.

It is worth noting that some of the long-term symptoms of brain damage are similar to ALS. Until relatively recently, many people were diagnosed with ALS when in fact they were suffering the long-term results of concussions. While symptoms are similar, the causes are quite different. There is no reason to suppose that this is why the hockey community has supported the cause so enthusiastically, but it is an interesting connection that predates one awareness campaign.

A more hockey-specific bit of news also cropped up this week, with the NHL’s revised Terms of Service Agreement. A section was added explaining that users could not mine NHL sites without permission, either manually or with automated data gathering programs. Not long ago, this little passage might have been considered irrelevant small print. At the moment, it can probably still be regarded as such by most users, but it could pose a problem very quickly for sites that sort and interpret NHL statistics. Sites like Behind the Net could be asked to stop using these stats without getting permission from the NHL. They could even be asked to pay for them.

It is true that this seems to be the Advanced Stats community’s coming out summer. NHL teams are hiring well-regarded hockey statisticians as quickly as Bleacher Report is hiring popular bloggers. Both moves are sensible business decisions, and probably long overdue. Did this acceptance of statistical analysis trigger the NHL’s sudden concern that they were giving their numbers away for free when they should not be?

Maybe the new TOS was overdue as well. Those statistics don’t compile themselves or even get to the website without many eyes and hands working to gather and publish them. Shouldn’t the advertising revenue from the site be enough to cover that? Maybe. Or maybe the recognition that stats are valuable means everyone will put more value on them, including monetary value. I would not say that the NHL is waging war on advanced stats sites, but they have put themselves in a position to claim their share of any value derived from those stats. 

The discussion is very similar to other cases involving Fair Use of copyrighted material. In short, if the use of someone else’s work is deemed “fair” it is okay, you don’t have to sell your house to pay the owner of the material you used. “Fair” use can include non-profit educational purposes, commentary on the material, or use that does no harm to the owner’s rights. The last part is mentioned in the NHL’s TOS, where they talk about harm:

You may not access or use, or attempt to access or use, the Services to take any action that could harm us or any other person or entity

That line covers more than ownership rights, implying that the NHL wants the option to defend against any sort of abuse using their material, but the Fair Use question is the simplest to identify and the most likely to be acted on first.

Fair Use has most conspicuously applied to music, books, and images. The owner of the material usually prevails in a law suit. There are a lot of people using images without permission, but that is only because many industries recognize the value of having their images promoted for free. (The music industry is notorious for their refusal to see it that way.) Even with images, though, you don’t have the right to use just any image any way you want. The same applies to data, so anyone who helps turn that data into a valuable commodity runs the risk that the owner might notice and ask to be compensated. The owners certainly played a part in making NHL statistics valuable, by making them available for free to so many for so long. Was this little take-back part of the plan from the start? Probably. You have to get people hooked before you can make any money as a data-dealer.

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