The single best thing I saw at the 2021 Tour de France had nothing to do with the bike race. Nearly half an hour after Sepp Kuss left Alejandro Valverde floundering on the slopes of Col de Beixalis, Max Walscheid (yes, that Max Walscheid) used them to casually lay down this ridiculous 570 foot wheelie:
The footage was just the latest installment in the Tour de Tietema, a superfan video travelogue produced by a trio of social media-savvy Dutch cyclists. Given universal appeal of the colossal German single-wheeling to roadside screams til his cameraman cries uncle, you’d think the TdF would be eager to promote this content. But you would be wrong.
The ASO, the Tour de France’s parent company, instead filed a copyright claim to remove the video from YouTube. Not just this video, but (initially, anyway) all Tour de France-related Tour de Tietema videos, whether they featured race footage or not. Because they’re the ASO, and what are you going to do about it?
Not-So-Intellectual Property Owners
I have been dealing with the ASO on intellectual property enforcement for more than a decade. While there are many Kafka-esq moments to chose from, my go-to remains the bizarre 2013 dictum that all TdF videos be no more than three minutes long. Not three minutes of race footage, mind you—just three minutes, regardless of content. Because they’re the ASO and what are you going to do about it?
From updates on Twitter, it seems like Team Tietema was eventually able to get in touch with the ASO, and that the organization fell back on that most French of all replies “ce n’est pas possible.” As is usually the case, this reflects more a moderate inconvenience to the speaker than actual possibility. Unlike trademark, choosing whether or not to enforce copyright restriction is entirely at the discretion of the copyright holder. If the the ASO thought Tietema’s video was lovely and a wonderful capture of the Tour’s overlooked joys, they could have very easily have kept it up.
But then someone at the ASO might have to have a marginally uncomfortable phone call with one of the broadcasters that pay a moderately large amount of money for their footage rights. Maybe, in this hyporthetical, that broadcaster could have missed some KPI about being the #1 Tour de France video on YouTube that given day, all because the ASO couldn’t be bothered to drop the banhammer on some weirdo from the Netherlands because he made “good content” that “people actually liked”.
And so, the general gist of the ASO’s stance on content is that they own everything. Like, literally—doesn’t matter who took it, where you were on course, whether or not it contains actual racing—if it has any conceivable association to the Tour de France, they will absolutely say it infringes on their copyright and take it down (at least from YouTube). After all, they’re the ASO—what are you going to do about it?
In Soviet America, Audience Drive You
The ASO is hardly the first sports organization to try and go full copyright fascist. In 2009, the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference attempted to effectively ban social media from sporting events. The logic was very much the same as the ASO’s, but the stakes were a solid order of magnitude higher—a $2.8 billion dollar deal with CBS, a separate $2+ billion dollar deal with ESPN, and for good measure, the launch of a brand-new streaming service.
The thing is, unlike cycling, college sports is something people actually care about. Pushback against the SEC’s draconian plan was immediate and dramatic, coming from fans, the established media, academia, the blogosphere, and even a voice of note in the professional peloton:
The universal criticism backed the conference down to mostly just preventing pirating live competition footage. Fans got to continue tweeting, broadcasters remained happy, and the SEC has been and will continue to be an absolute money cow—at least until the Supreme Court starts making them pay their athletes.
This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
So, y’know, what we could do about all this is collectively tell the ASO to get bent, the way the rest of the world did to the SEC. But the ASO is allowed to throw its weight around in a way the SEC can’t because the stakes are so comparatively low. There aren’t billions of dollars on the line. No legions of KKG pledges are ready to take up arms for their Boone’s-buzzed game-day selfies—or at least whine to their-deep pocketed donor parents about it.
Even at the level of setting narrative, the ASO is at a tremendous advantage. Pro cycling, unlike college sports, doesn’t sit adjacent to a host of academics, circling ravenously for the next novel intersection of law and technology to opine on, whether it benefits their host institution or not.
While ESPN can risk its relationship with the SEC because of its dozens of other revenue-generating partnerships, the portion of (for example) VeloNews‘ revenue that comes from web traffic, ad buys, and subscription fees directly tied to the Tour de France should make them think twice about upsetting the ASO. The Tour isn’t so much cycling’s eight-hundred-pound gorilla as the entire zoo, several world-class museums, and the architectural firm that designed them.
Something About “A Rising Tide”?
I don’t want to seem like I’m not giving the ASO its due. The organization produces a massively complex event very, very well. For all their ludicrous assertions around intellectual property rights, the company also puts out hours of coverage a day for three weeks, with shots scripted months in advance that come through as beautifully and brilliantly as any major motion picture. And perhaps most remarkably of all, the Tour de France is a money-making entity in pro cycling—a feat seldom duplicated since its inception 118 years ago.
But that profitability comes at the expense of basically everyone else in the sport. And it’s not just small-fry intellectual property concerns like unauthorized wheelies—the ASO has used the Tour’s position as the only race that matters to repeatedly block the sport’s wider efforts to even try to arrive at a sustainable model. Their rationale seems to be that they’re already making money, so why do anything differently? Especially when such a move might help other race organizers—the ASO’s ostensible competition.
The answer to that “why?” is that owning the sport’s preeminent event becomes exponentially more valuable if the sport itself has an audience. In 1967, a Super Bowl ad spot cost a mere $42,000—and keep in mind, this was in a TV market that gave viewers literally only two other options. The NFL of the 1960s was puny, dwarfed by Major League baseball, and occasionally pre-empted by made-for-TV movies. But a series of savvy and collectively beneficial decisions—including taking a risk on franchises from their competitors at the AFL—saw the league grow into the titan it is today, commanding some $5.5MM for 30 seconds of ad time in the sport’s marquee event.
In Conclusion, Libya is a land of contrasts
I wish I had a more positive note to end this on. But napkin-math counter-examples not withstanding, no one sees the ASO changing course on this.
I suppose I could say that things are better than they used to be? The ASO does now offer non-exclusive footage rights, something I was told would never be possible way back in 2009. The process is labyrinthine, and last time I checked the price tag was well outside what a small producer could reasonably turn a profit on. There’s also a question of how, exactly, a small operation (like Tour de Tietema) would even know it needs media rights, given the ASO’s penchant for over-enforcement—but it’s a start, I suppose.
Media consolidation, while it comes with its own set of concerns, may also offer some hope. I’m not sure how Sequoia Heritage plans to recoup the $150MM it sunk into Outside earlier this year, but the investment might provide some financial insulation—and perhaps even a united front—in the event any of the company’s publications wanted to step up to the ASO the way ESPN did to the SEC.
Lachlan Morton’s Alt Tour also might also foretell some changes. The EF rider’s solo effort received impressively widespread coverage, repackaging Tour’s relatable story of human endeavor triumphing over adversity without the commitment to hours of not-especially-viewable race footage. This might reflect some exhaustion with ASO’s current model on the part of both fans and teams.
Of course—as with Tour de Tietema’s non-race-footage content, there’s no guarantee the ASO won’t decide that that it should own the rights to the Alt Tour as well. It’s an unreasonable assertion, but not an indefensible one—could the Alt Tour exist without the ASO Tour de France route? Are bike race routes subject to copyright? Morton himself noted the fairly extreme differences in riding the Tour’s route vs. riding the open roads. Could we go even further and see the word “Tour” in this context as infringing on the ASO’s aggressively-defended “Tour de France” trademark?
I want to say—and I think most reasonable people would agree—that the answer to all these questions is “no”. But for that determination to be definitive, the issue would need to come before a judge, and even getting to that point would be a six-figure legal expense, should the ASO feel like pressing the issue. Not entirely sure what kind of slush fund most WorldTour teams have access to, but my guess is it doesn’t include contingencies for an intellectual property trial.
All the more reason for everyone in cycling to start considering—they’re the ASO; what are you going to do about it?