Queen captures knight: Who owns the rights to divulge moves in chess?

Your move.
Your move.
Image: Reuters/Bernadett Szabo
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Forget the war between humans vs. machines in the world of Go. There’s a vicious battle going on in the genteel world of chess—about broadcasting rights.

There’s a tournament going on at the minute in Moscow to decide the challenger to face Magnus Carlsen, the world number one, in New York City in November. While previously chess fans would have had an array of sites to watch every intricate move in the match, Agon—the owner the World Chess brand as well as commercial rights holder to the World Chess Championship cycle— has recently announced that all the live action from the tournament will exclusively show on its website and by approved broadcast partners in certain countries.

Live action in chess is not watching the players, as it is in most other sports. This is not about showing the players bowed over their chess boards, but relaying the moves that go on to determine a winner—the equivalent of being sued if you shared news of a pass in football or a free-kick in soccer.

The company notes that fans will be able to watch the action for free—on the condition that they will not be transmitting the moves elsewhere. But the move has been met with significant backlash from chess fans and players, including former British champion Stuart Conquest, who asked whether tweeting about moves broke broadcasting rules.

Agon is already commencing legal action against four chess websites— Chess24, Internet, ChessClub, Chessgames, and Chessbomb—for “blatantly flouting restrictions on the live broadcasting of the games and moves.”  It claims to have suffered a number of DDoS attacks, which it says were designed to crash the website.

The rights battle in chess echoes battles in other sports like soccer to enforce the exclusivity of broadcasting rights—and this has happened in the past, raising the question of whether one can copyright a chess move. Agon remains unfazed by the criticism and is pushing ahead with the broadcast restrictions in upcoming tournaments. It even boasted that the number two-ranked player, Vladimir Kramnik, has backed their effort to enforce broadcasting rights.