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Over the past month, Kawhi Leonard, one of the NBA’s most iconic players, has continuously been in the news for leading the Toronto Raptors its first ever NBA championship. However, Leonard has also made news for his actions off the court. On June 3rd, Leonard initiated a lawsuit against Nike for ownership rights to a logo (seen below) that he claims Nike stole, “fraudulently” filed a copyright application for, and threatened to sue him over. The case is a great example of why individuals (in the esports context, players and streamers) must make sure that the ownership rights in their intellectual property are clearly established, expressed, and protected to the fullest extent prior to entering into sponsorships, endorsements, or other types of licensing arrangements.
In his complaint, Leonard begins by stating that he originally created his logo while in college, long before he entered into three-year endorsement deal with Nike. This is an important fact in the case because if true, under United States copyright law, Leonard would have obtained ownership rights to the logo upon its creation.
After making this assertion, Leonard explains that Nike started discussions with him about developing a unique logo to affix on its merchandise shortly after he signed his endorsement deal with the company. Since Leonard had already created a logo, he maintains that Nike repeatedly asked to revise his existing logo, and sent him multiple modified designs based upon the mark he created. After denying several mock-ups, Leonard finally approved a refined design, and authorized Nike to use it on its merchandise.
Throughout the term of their relationship, which had been extended to July 2018, Leonard believed that he retained ownership in the refined logo since it was based on his original design and he never expressly transferred any ownership rights in the mark to Nike – he only authorized Nike’s use of the mark. However, Nike also believed it was the true owner of the new refined mark, and the company even filed an application with the United States Copyright Office to register the mark. Nike’s application was granted in 2017 and its registration lists the company as the sole author and owner of the mark, and describes itself as an “employer for hire.”
Typically, these types of endorsement agreements will include language that provides the company with ownership rights in any intellectual property created by the company during the term of the agreement. This language defines the business as an “employer for hire,” which signifies that it will own any designs created by its employees or independent contractors, as these designs are considered works made for hire. Still, this type of provision would not apply to marks that were created by an individual prior to entering into agreement, which appears to be the case here. Generally, in those situations, the owner of the mark would either sell the mark outright, or agree to license it to the business at the outset of their partnership. In both situations, a written agreement would clearly define ownership rights in the intellectual property and any modifications to the mark.
Here, Nike may try to argue that the “refined mark” was completely different than Leonard’s original logo in hopes of establishing its own copyright in the mark. It may also contend that Leonard expressly transferred any ownership rights in the mark to the company once it made modifications. In either event, Nike will need to provide strong evidence corroborating its argument. While it appears the parties are approaching this matter cordially, executing a well-drafted licensing agreement at the inception of their relationship would have prevented this matter from escalating to this point.
How does this apply to esports?
As the profiles of many players and streamers in the esports industry continue to increase in popularity, these individuals need to be mindful of their intellectual property. They must take the appropriate steps to ensure that ownership of such property is clearly established in all agreements and protected to its fullest extent. This is especially necessary for players and streamers when entering into endorsement or sponsorship agreements with companies, as these businesses may look to use or further develop an individual’s existing intellectual property. As seen with the Leonard case, this is particularly critical with any associated logos or marks. Clearly establishing and expressing ownership rights in a mark will make it apparent to the business that an individual owns the mark it wishes to use.
In order to do so appropriately, individuals should first ensure that they legally own their mark. Oftentimes players and streamers hire parties to design their mark for them. In this case, individuals must make sure that they receive a written work-for-hire agreement from any party who designs their mark. This agreement will state that any rights to the design have been assigned from the artist to the streamer or player. Without this agreement in place, the designer may still have ownership interest in the mark.
Players and streamers should also look to register their mark with United States Copyright Office and United States Patent and Trademark Office. In most cases, proof of copyright and trademark registrations will provide a party with strong evidence of ownership rights in a mark, and also provide them with a number of other benefits.
Once these measure are taken and retention of ownership is firmly in place, individuals can express their ownership rights in mark to any company that wishes to enter into an endorsement deal and proceed to license their mark effectively.
Distinguishing ownership rights to intellectual property can become increasingly difficult when multiple parties begin to use such intellectual property, like a logo. Since companies executing endorsement or sponsorship deals may look to use or further develop a player or streamer’s mark in the activation of these agreements, individuals must make sure that their ownership rights in the mark are clearly defined and expressed to the company at the outset of their relationship. By doing so, companies will be aware of the individual’s rights in a mark and look to license the mark appropriately. Effectively executing this type of agreement should prevent any ownership confusion and/or subsequent litigation, saving both parties time and money.
(This post was submitted by Patrick Hankins, a rising 3L at Marquette University Law School and an intern at Quiles Law)
In the recently filed complaint against FaZe Clan, Turner “Tfue” Tenney alleges that FaZe signed H1ghSky1, an eleven-year-old gamer, and lied about the minor’s age (claiming that he was thirteen, which has proven true) in order to meet the minimum age requirements for Twitch streaming and competitive Fortnite events. It has been alleged that to maintain the charade, FaZe Clan also pressured H1ghSky1 and his family to maintain the lie. Unfortunately, H1ghSky1’s Twitch account has been banned, presumably due to his actual age not satisfying Twitch’s terms of service.
Given the recent discussion of underage players triggered by this incident, this blog post explores the various potential legal issues of signing a minor to a player contract and methods to prevent these issues from affecting an organization.
Minors Can Disaffirm a Contract
Minors only have the capacity to enter voidable contracts. Generally, jurisdictions allow minors to “disaffirm” a contract before or reasonably after turning 18 years old or if the minor dies within the contract’s effective period.
Disaffirming a contract is any conduct or statement by the minor giving notice of intent to disaffirm, or otherwise leave the contract. To disaffirm a contract, express notice is not required. Typically, this is accomplished by the minor’s oral or written declaration of intent not to fulfill the contract.
Void vs. Voidable Contracts
Void contracts, as the name suggests, mean that a contract is void from the beginning. There is no need for a party to disaffirm the contract because the contract is not enforceable. Contracts that delegate the minor’s authority to contract, any contract by a minor relating to interests in real property (i.e. land ownership), and contracts relating to personal property not in the minor’s immediate possession are considered void at their inception.
In contrast, voidable contracts have the status of potentially becoming void at the request of the wronged party. A contract with a minor is a voidable contract, but it is not void until the minor disaffirms the contract. If the minor does not void the contract, it remains effective even if the contract is voidable.
Generally, parental consent (along with additional terms for the parent) is included in contracts with minors to retain the parent as a guarantor for the minor’s services. Should the minor disaffirm a contract, the disaffirmance does not also apply to the parent’s obligation as a guarantor. The parent would remain liable, based upon the terms of the contract, regardless of the minor’s disaffirmance.
Legally emancipated minors may enter into contracts as if they were 18 years old. Emancipation is the permanent release of parental control and authority over a minor. Effectively, this allows a minor to collect personal earnings and terminates legal parental duties to support the minor. Some states allow minors to emancipate through an express agreement by parent and minor, or an implied agreement from acts and conduct that indicate consent. Other states even have laws that outline procedures which require court petitions that confirm the minor’s emancipated status.
Misrepresentation of Age
Generally, a minor who misrepresents their age will not be bound to a contract. The voidability of the contract depends on the minor’s actual age; the misrepresented age has no effect on whether the minor can disaffirm the contract. In fact, some courts allow minors, despite their fraud, to seek recovery of the consideration paid or seek other equitable remedies.
However, a minority of jurisdictions have established statutes that prevent a minor from disaffirming a contract based on age misrepresentation or if the other party had good reason to believe the minor was able to enter the contract. In those locales, a party’s reliance on a minor’s statements regarding age can serve as the basis of recovery. There, the minor must be retaining benefits provided by the contract which causes substantial harm to the other contracting party.
Some states allow a minor’s contract related to art, entertainment, and professional sports if a court has approved the contract. Once a minor’s contract has been approved by a court, disaffirmance of the contract is only permitted in statutorily provided instances. The states that require court approval also require a parent or legal guardian to establish a trust that keeps a percentage of the minor’s earnings which are not distributed until the minor turns eighteen or otherwise obtains a court order.
What can esports orgs do?
Contracting with a minor is a risky business practice. If an esports organization is seeking to sign a minor player, they should ensure that their contracts adhere to local law not only where the organization is operating, but also where the minor is located, to ensure that sufficient changes to the contract are made, if necessary.
Further, organizations should maintain a rigorous age screening process as misrepresentations of age, even a seemingly insignificant leap from eleven to thirteen years old can have larger ramifications such as violations of streaming platforms’ terms of service or games’ competitive rules. A violation of these terms means ineligibility for streaming or competition, which can have a significant negative impact for the organization.
Thus, esports organizations should not fully shy away from signing minors to player contracts, but keep in mind the extra steps required to establish an amicable agreement that serves both players’ desires as well as organizations’ needs to compete, stream, and influence across multiple platforms.
As we discussed previously, licensing can be a great way for businesses to profit off of their intellectual property without completely transferring or assigning all of their ownership rights to another party. A license authorizes a licensee to use a licensor’s certain intellectual property rights in specified manners in exchange for compensation. This arrangement allows both parties to exploit each other’s strengths (i.e. brand strength or production methods) for commercial gain. While these types of arrangements can be extremely profitable for both parties, licensors and licensees should have some familiarity with the language of the deal in order to ensure that they are not agreeing to unfavorable terms. This post will discuss the terms common to licensing agreements, and also highlight certain issues that can arise during the course of the contractual relationship.
Grant of Rights
The “Grant of Rights” section is the foundation of any licensing agreement. Here, the contract will identify which parties are involved in the transaction and what intellectual property is being licensed.
Correctly identifying the parties to a licensing transaction should not be overlooked. Oftentimes, a parent company may comprise of a number of entities so it’s important that the drafter makes sure the intended party is accurately described. For example, by entering into a deal with Activison Blizzard instead of the Overwatch League entity specifically, the extent of your transaction may exceed your original intention, as all of Activision Blizzard’s affiliated companies may be granted the right to use the licensed intellectual property.
Additionally, this section should also describe what intellectual property is being licensed. Depending on the purpose of the arrangement, the extent of what intellectual property will be made available can be broad (i.e. all intellectual property) or narrow (specific trademark/slogan). Precisely identifying which intellectual property will be the subject of the license is necessary to ensure both parties are on the same page and not exceeding their rights.
Scope of the Grant
The scope of the grant will dictate how the licensee will be able to use the license. Parties should determine whether the license will be exclusive, restrictive to certain geographic locations or sectors, and the term of the agreement when defining the scope of a license.
Generally, there are three types of licensing agreements: exclusive, sole, or non-exclusive. In an exclusive license, the licensee is only the party that can use the licensed intellectual property. This restriction on use also applies the licensor, which tends to cause these types of arrangements to be the most expensive. If a licensor wishes to continuing using the licensed intellectual property, the licensor should look to execute a sole license. This type of license provides the licensee with the right to continue to use its intellectual property, along with the licensor. In a non-exclusive licensing agreement, the licensee will be able to use the intellectual property, but the licensor holds the right to license the property to other businesses. Licensees will often try to push for some kind of exclusivity in a licensing agreement in order to prevent any potential competitors from also obtaining the rights to use the licensed intellectual property in a defined category, but this will also command a higher cost.
Territory rights must also be clearly defined. Parties will want to clarify where the licensee will be able to use the rights granted during the term of the agreement. Many agreements will grant licensees worldwide authorization, but it is not uncommon for licensors to add geographic restrictions if a licensor wants to reserve those areas for other potential partners in the future. These geographic restrictions can be structured in any fashion, but oftentimes will organized by continent, country, or region. For instance, a licensee may be granted a limited right to use the licensed intellectual property within only North America, or more narrowly, the United States, for the duration of the term. These limitations can get tricky as a licensor could also grant to a party exclusive rights for certain territories and nonexclusive rights in others.
As with any agreement, the term must also be defined in the agreement. The term of an agreement establishes the time frame of the deal. When deciding on the term, parties should be realistic and consider how long it may take for a licensed product to hit the market. A six-month license may not be wise if this time frame does not allow for adequate product manufacturing, distribution, and marketing. Parties should thoroughly consider this in order to maximize returns from the partnership. The Term may also provide for a specified run-off period beyond the initial term itself whereby the licensee can continue to sell off any remaining stock of licensed items/merchandise. This potentially reduces the sunk cost of remaining inventory.
The method of compensation used in these types of deals can vary, but will often take the form of: (1) a one time payment; (2) an earned royalty fee with an annual minimum; or (3) a combination of (1) and (2). By opting to use the one time payment method, the licensing party will pay a flat amount, up front, in order to the use the license for the duration of the agreement. While an upfront payment may be beneficial for a licensor who needs additional capital immediately, generally, parties will elect to use the earned royalty fee structure. Under this structure, the licensor will receive a percentage of net sales on products sold that incorporate the licensed intellectual property (approx. 6 to 10 percent). In order to protect against the possibility of poor sales, licensors may require an annual minimum payment to ensure they receive adequate compensation for the license. These payments can get complicated so parties must make sure to include clear payment terms regarding the timing and frequency of payments, as well as the mode of payment. Parties may also want to consider including language that requires a proper accounting report to accompany any royalty payment that is made. Without this, licensors would have a difficult time figuring out whether the appropriate royalty amount has been paid. Additionally, it is not uncommon for licensors that own famous marks to require both an upfront fee and a royalty payment. This allows the mark holder to capitalize on the fact that its marks are famous.
These rights define the circumstances in which the agreement may be terminated. While licenses will terminate upon expiry of the original term and after the exhaustion of all renewal periods, this section may also allow for parties to terminate the license either with or without cause.
Both parties should seek to include a list of events (breaches or defaults), which may trigger termination by the licensee or the licensor. For example, licensors will want to include language allows them to terminate a licensee if it: (1) fails to pay royalties; (2) fails to maintain licensor’s level of quality control; or (3) files for bankruptcy. A licensor may also want to include the right to terminate the license if a licensee does not release the targeted product to market within a certain amount of time.
Licensees generally have fewer termination rights, as the crux of the deal often relies on their performance. However, in certain situations, licensors may be obligated to advertise the product and conduct promotions. If they do not perform these obligations in an appropriate or timely manner, the licensor may be in breach, thus allowing the licensee to terminate. It’s important to note that agreements should give non-breaching parties the right to terminate, but not force them to do so.
These are only a few of the terms that will be included within a licensing agreement. However, familiarizing yourself with these provisions will provide you with a solid foundation when finalizing the deal. By clearly defining what intellectual property will be licensed, the scope of the rights granted, compensation, and each party’s rights of termination, you will be able to understand critical points of the deal and reduce the likelihood of major problems arising thorough the course for the partnership. Still, licensing agreements can include a number of complicated clauses, so it’s essential that you understand each section of the agreement being executing it. If you have any questions regarding the terms of your licensing agreements, please feel free to contact us.
As the esports landscape continues to grow and companies further invest within the space, there is no doubt that the shift towards the professionalization of business practices at all levels of the industry is well underway. This progression is already apparent in that most businesses, teams, and players have started to adopt a more mature outlook on written contracts within the space. For the most part, some type of written contract is now the rule rather than the exception in business transactions, even at the small business and semipro levels. While this approach is positive for the future of the industry since contracts should provide both parties in a transaction with necessary protections, the value of a contract can be in jeopardy if proper business practices are not instituted.
Disputes in business transactions can arise at any level of the deal so it’s important for all businesses (yes, streamers are businesses too) to take steps to ensure that they will be able to protect themselves if a problem were to arise in the future. No one likes to think that when entering a contract, there may be disputes in time, but implementing some simple business practices at the outset of any deal can help make the resolution of any potential dispute easier. Here are some tips that will help prevent problems from occurring, and may assist you down the line if there is ever a contractual dispute:
1. Do Your Due Diligence
While this may seem like an unnecessarily obvious step, research the other party to the deal prior to entering into an agreement with them. Our trusting human nature can sometimes be harmful in newer industries where bad actors look to prey on inexperienced business owners. Unfortunately, esports is no different. There are a number of very public examples (see here) where people have falsely represented who they are or who they work for in order to reap their own gain. For example, someone may represent that they work for a company does not actually exist, have high valued accounts which don’t exist, or represent that they work for a company, when they actually do not, in order to trick a person into entering into an agreement for whatever reason. Doing a quick search of the company or person you are dealing on websites like Google, LinkedIn, and even Twitter, can help you better determine whether the other party is reliable and prevent you from entering into a partnership with people who may be acting fraudulently.
2. Retain All Communications
Keeping a record of all communications (emails, texts, discord messages, etc.) with the sponsor throughout the span of your relationship can also be beneficial if done so in a responsible manner. Maintaining communications from initial outreach, to negotiation, and through the actual term of the agreement, will help provide you with concrete evidence to validate your claim if there is ever a dispute regarding the terms or intention of an agreement. This is especially necessary when communicating orally over the phone or through online voice chats, where details can easily get lost or “forgotten” between the parties. It is always a good practice to send a follow-up email to the other party after discussing anything significant in the manner. Doing so provides both parties with clarity as to what was discussed, which can eliminate any immediate confusion.
3. Retain All Contracts and Corresponding Information
Although written contracts have become more of a standard practice within the esports industry over the past few years, there is still an element of unpredictability that transpires in many of these transactions. Oftentimes, parties will agree to modify conditions of an existing agreement during its term, which can result in multiple separate independent agreements. It is good practice to keep track of ALL of these agreements on file in an organized manner in case of a dispute. This way, if a party tries to argue that it only agreed to certain terms from the original agreement, you will be able to provide supporting evidence proving otherwise. Without having these documents available, it would be much more difficult to substantiate your claims. Importantly, this sentiment also applies to any amendments to a contract. Additionally, it is also helpful to preserve any audit trail from websites where you have electronically signed an agreement. This audit trail can prove to be useful if the opposing party ever tries to contest the authenticity of a signature, which, unfortunately, happens far too often. An audit trail will verify the name of the user that executed the agreement, the date it was signed, and sometimes, the IP address of the signatories.
While these steps may seem basic, it is surprising how often little steps like these are not taken. With so many deals being completed, and frankly, being busy operating the business itself, it is easy for businesses to become unorganized and lose track of every detail of its dealings. Instituting simple business practices like saving all contracts from your email into your hard drive, scanning each physical agreement onto your computer, and sorting/maintaining all communications with contracted parties can save you time and money if a problem were to arise. And as always, do your due diligence before entering into an agreement!
(Photo used under creative commons license. The original photo can be accessed here)
(This post is the third in our series on sponsorship considerations. Our first post, on defining expectations and payments, can be found here and our second post, on defining exclusivity, can be found here)
The last topic we will discuss in our sponsorship essentials series is intellectual property rights in sponsorship agreements. Just like the concerns we’ve already covered, intellectually property rights can easily become convoluted if not explicitly addressed in the terms of the agreement. These rights are at the core of a sponsorship agreement and are essential to its successful activation. The very nature of sponsorship centers around the usage of another brand for promotional purpose. A standard agreement will grant the sponsored party (licensee) the right to use the sponsoring party’s (licensor) name and logo in a specified manner (like a patch on a team jersey) and for a defined period of time. However, there are other intellectual property concerns to be aware of with respect to sponsorship agreements.
Defining control and ownership
Any sponsorship agreement should also precisely outline any rights associated with control over the licensed brand usage. In these agreements, parties will typically want control over: (1) the message being expressed in specific sponsorship activations, and (2) ownership of any content created as a result of an activation.
Control over the message being expressed in an activation is important to sponsors because it gives the sponsor the ability to determine whether any specific content being utilized for the activation is appropriate or in line with the brand image that the sponsor wishes to convey. An involved sponsor may negotiate for approval rights before any sponsored content is posted to ensure that the appropriate message is being delivered in conjunction with its branding. An established sponsor may not want to risk receiving any potential backlash from an inexperienced sponsee who posts controversial content. However, there are also many sponsors who don’t have the time to vet and approve potential sponsor content, so this may not be of concern to them. Instead, they’ll simply hold the sponsee accountable after any problematic content has been posted.
A sponsor may also want to own all IP rights associated with the content created during the activation of the sponsorship. This is particularly evident in streamer sponsorship agreements. Sponsors will want to own the content in which its IP or product is being used so that it can potentially utilize the video for promotional purposes at a later date. For an ongoing, “use on stream” deal, this equates to essentially owning the content of someone’s stream for the duration of the sponsorship agreement. Sponsees should be aware that granting this type of control to a sponsor would be problematic because it would effectively eliminate many of the rights the streamer had in the content of their stream, and their potential monetization of the stream.
As the streaming and esports industries continue to grow, companies will continue to flock to the market to align with new and trendy brands. Whether the sponsor is a well established company or not, it is important to consider all of the terms included in any potential agreement before entering into it. The specific provisions discussed in this series of articles are a good place to start when deciding whether you are being adequately protected in a sponsorship deal, but they are by no means the only terms to consider. Every provision in an agreement is significant and should be evaluated independently and within the context of the agreement as a whole. If you are a business, a player, streamer, or influencer, feel free to contact us to assist with your sponsorship agreements.
(Image used via creative commons, courtesy of BusinessSarah)
(This post is the second on our series on sponsorship considerations. Our first post, on defining expectations and payments, can be found here)
In all sponsorship negotiations, the issue of exclusivity is perhaps the single most important topic of discussion. Exclusivity is significant because it prohibits a sponsee (the company/individual being sponsored) from entering into other sponsorships, whether at large or in specified categories. Sponsors will often push for complete exclusivity over broad sponsorship categories because this protection provides the sponsor with an uninterrupted spotlight for their brand. For example, a drink sponsor like Cola-Cola will not want to pay top dollar for a sponsorship deal if the sponsee can simultaneously enter into an agreement with Pepsi. It is easy to see why a sponsor would want this type of protection, but a sophisticated sponsee should be aware that exclusivity can be tailored to better reflect the desires of both parties to the sponsorship.
An effective exclusivity provision starts with detailed communication. Both parties need to know what each side expects the exclusive product category to include. Sponsors will want the product category to be as broad as possible in order limit the amount of competitors. For instance, a company that offers nutritional supplements may try to expand its product category to include nutritional bars, protein shakes, and other types of supplements. In response, sponsees should try to limit the scope of the exclusive product category to be as narrow as possible. Using the above example, if a sponsee can limit the category to only include nutritional bars, it will have more flexibility when soliciting additional sponsors for the protein shakes and other supplement categories. This flexibility allows for potentially greater sponsorship revenue.
However, newer organizations, players, or influencers, may find it difficult to negotiate the scope of the rights to their advantage. Nonetheless, sponsees should at least make sure the categories and exclusivity are thoroughly defined to curb potential sponsor overreach. A sponsor may believe its deal as a sponsee’s “exclusive camera” would preclude a sponsee from entering into another deal with a company like Panasonic, who sells a variety of products including cameras, headphones, and televisions. A sponsee should insist that any obligation it has to not enter into a deal with a competing sponsor (exclusivity) is limited to the category that the sponsorship is in. Unfortunately for sponsors, a sponsee would still be able to enter into a deal with Panasonic as long as it only agreed to endorse a Panasonic product that did not fall under a protected category. While this may not be ideal for the current camera sponsor, an explicitly defined product category would inform sponsors of any limitations and hopefully clear up any potential confusion or issues that may arise down the line when partnering with multiple sponsors.
Another matter the parties to a sponsorship should be aware of is whether any restrictions are imposed by third parties. Frequently in traditional sports and esports, leagues will prevent teams, and teams will prevent players, from entering into sponsorship agreements within its own defined “Reserved Categories.” A Reserved Category is effectively a sponsorship category in which the restricted party is contractually required to not obtain sponsors in. For example, if a league has an exclusive sponsorship with Alienware and it has specified in its league participation agreement that the PC category was protected or reserved from teams, then a team could not enter into a sponsorship which would include PCs. This also occurs between teams and players in their player contracts, with players having certain sponsorship categories closed off to them. Importantly, it is in everyone’s best interest that these Reserved Categories are well defined, so as to avoid any possible confusion and disputes.
Negotiating exclusivity rights can be difficult but it is in all parties’ best interests to have a clear picture of what specific products are being protected and the associated rights/obligations. Without this, a number of potential problems can exist, which may ultimately harm the sponsorship relationship.
Our next post will discuss the various intellectual property concerns when entering into a sponsorship agreement.
Sponsorships are integral to the esports and sports industries as they provide a vital stream of revenue to their recipients. As 2018 is shaping up to be the biggest year for non-endemic sponsorships in the history of esports, it is important to keep in mind some basic sponsorship considerations when reviewing any sponsorship agreement. Specifically, the agreement’s expectations/obligations, payment, intellectual property, and exclusivity terms are key areas of any sponsorship agreement that you should pay close attention to. This post will address the expectations and payment provisions of a sponsorship agreement, and subsequent posts will discuss considerations regarding intellectual property and exclusivity.
When executed correctly, a sponsorship is a valuable arrangement because it is designed to benefit both parties. The foundation of a sponsorship is the expectations and obligations involved, and here we begin to see the mutually beneficial arrangement comes in to view. What is the sponsoring company asking of me? What are you receiving in exchange for the sponsorship? These questions are the starting point for an analysis of the expectations and obligations involved in a sponsorship agreement.
The key to an effective sponsorship agreement starts with both parties’ expectations being clearly defined. Without a precise description of each party’s obligations, the parties will, at least partly, be unaware of what is expected, making it difficult to properly fulfill their obligations. This ambiguity can often lead to arguments, terminations, or even breach of contract lawsuits. Considering that it’s in the best interest of both parties to develop a long-standing business relationship, avoiding conflicts through precise wording is beneficial to everyone.
Both parties should articulate its goals for the deal and explain how they plans to achieve their goals. For example, if a company wants to sponsor to a team and its players, requiring the players wear clothing with the company logo prominently displayed, it is imperative to specify when the company wants the team, and its players, to do this. With teams constantly pushing out content on various social media platforms and players doing the same on their individual accounts, a sponsor may expect to see its logo on team gear at all times. This may be broader than the team anticipated, who solely wanted the items’ usage to be while the players are streaming. A clearly defined provision would eliminate any confusion amongst the parties and provide a solid foundation for the sponsorship by eliminating any unknown intentions.
Payment terms are also of critical concern in evaluating a sponsorship agreement. Unfortunately, failed sponsorship payments are routine within the esports industry, and oftentimes create further issues for the sponsored party. For instance, if a team doesn’t get its sponsorship payment on time, it may have trouble paying its players’ salaries. At its most base level, payment provisions are what the sponsored entity or person receives in exchange for the sponsored promotion. Of course, the sponsorship agreement should specify the amount to be paid (or the specifics as to how a variable amount is determined) and when the amount will be paid. However, the payment terms of the agreement can also be used to incentivize proper payment. Savvy negotiators will seek to add penalties, termination rights, or other things that would disincentivize late/failed payments. In the event that payment is late or does not occur, these additions would provide you with greater flexibility to offset some of the impact incurred.
When it comes to sponsorship agreements, clarity and precision are key. This is especially true when defining each party’s expectations and obligations with respect to each other, including payment terms.
In our next post, we’ll discuss exclusivity rights and some of the considerations involved by both parties.
(This post was contributed by Alan Conklin. Alan is an intern for Roger Quiles, Esq. and a recent graduate of the Villanova School of Law)
On October 10, Epic Games filed complaints against Charles Vraspir and Brandon Broom (the “Players”) alleging the Players made and used software that allowed users to cheat in Fortnite, a co-op survival action video game developed by Epic Games.
The Players were alleged associates of the website Addicted Cheats, where users pay a monthly subscription of $5 to $15 for botting services that aim and kill enemies in PvP games. In order to create the cheats used to enable this service, the Players allegedly reverse-engineered and modified the game’s source code.
Cheating in video games is an important issue for game developers, as cheating typically makes games more difficult for other users to play and alters how the gameplay experience from what the developers intended., often causing those users to play the games less. For games that have only been around for a short period of time, this user exodus can be devastating.
Fortnite: Battle Royal, which was released to the public on September 26, 2017, has impressively passed the seven million-player mark in the short amount of time, but the game’s developer took swift action in response to the discovery of the cheating service. In a statement made to Polygon last week, Epic stated,
“When cheaters use aimbots or other cheat technologies to gain an unfair advantage, they ruin games for people who are playing fairly. We take cheating seriously, and we’ll pursue all available options to make sure our games are fun, fair, and competitive for players."
One of the available options was apparently taking legal action against Vraspir and Broom, who had already been banned from Fortnite at least nine times.
In two separate complaints, Epic makes four similar arguments against each individual:
First, Epic argues that the Players violated the Copyright Act by creating an unauthorized derivative work of Epic’s copyrighted Fortnite code. Epic alleges the Players used computer software to inject code into Fortnite’s code, which materially modified and changed the code. This created work was never authorized by Epic. Accordingly, Epic believes the Players infringed on Epic’s copyrights and are liable for direct and willful infringement.
For this violation, Epic seeks: (1) an injunction prohibiting the Players from using the service; (2) actual damages, including lost sales and profits as a result of the Players’ contributory infringement; (3) any additional profits made by the Players; (4) alternatively, statutory damages up to $150,000 for the Players’ willful infringement; and (5) attorneys’ fees and costs.
Contributory Copyright Infringement
In the second claim, Epic alleges the Players contributed to the direct and willful infringement of Epic’s copyrights while working in their capacity for Addicted Cheats. Epic states the Players touted the cheats to other users in online forums, actively encouraging the other users to purchase the cheats. Additionally, Epic believes the Players helped users in their use of the cheats by “providing help and support to cheaters and would-be cheaters who ask for support using the cheats.”
As a result of this violation, Epic seeks: (1) an injunction prohibiting the Players from using the service; (2) actual damages, including lost sales and profits as a result of the Players’ contributory infringement; (3) any additional profits made by the Players; (4) alternatively, statutory damages up to $150,000 for the Players’ willful infringement; and (5) attorneys’ fees and costs.
Breach of Contract (North Carolina law)
The third claim against the Players is a breach of contract claim asserting that the Players violated Epic’s Terms of Service and Fortnite’s End User License Agreement (the “EULA”).
In order to create an account with Epic, use its services, and download Fortnite, all users, including the Players, must agree to both the Terms of Services and the EULA.
Epic’s Terms of Service expressly prohibit users from ““copy[ing], modify[ing], creat[ing] derivative works of, publicly display[ing], publicly perform[ing], republish[ing] or transmit[ting] any of the material obtained through [Epic’s] services.”
Fortnite’s EULA prohibits players from ““reverse engineer[ing], deriv[ing] source code from, modify[ing], adapt[ing], translat[ing], decompil[ing,] or disassembl[ing Fortnite] or mak[ing] derivative works based on [Fortnite]” and “creat[ing], develop[ing], distribut[ing], or us[ing] any unauthorized software programs to gain advantage in any online or other game modes.”
By reversing engineering Fortnite’s source code and materially altering it to make a cheating service, the Players created an unauthorized derivate work, thus violating their agreements with Epic and Fortnite.
For this violation, the Epic seeks: (1) an injunction prohibiting the players from continuing to the use the work; (2) compensatory damages; and (3) attorneys’ fees and other costs.
Intentional Interference with Contractual Relations (North Carolina law)
The last claim against both Players also involves the Terms of Services and EULA. In this claim, Epic argues that the Players intentionally interfered with contractual relations by encouraging and inducing Fortnite users to purchase and use the Players’ cheats, despite having knowledge of the Terms and EULA between Epic and its registered users, which prohibit the use of cheats in Fortnite.
For this violation, Epic seeks: (1) an injunction to restrain and enjoin the players from continuing to use the service; (2) damages for loss of goodwill among users of Epic’s services, decreased profits, and lost profits from users whose accounts were terminated for violations of the Terms and the Fortnite EULA; and (3) the proceeds the Players received from the sales of the cheats (unjust enrichment).
Circumvention of Technological Measures in Violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Broom only)
In addition to those claims, Epic asserted another claim Broom individually. This claim alleges that Broom violated the DMCA, by using a cheat that was primarily designed for the purpose of circumnavigating Epic’s security measures used to prevent unauthorized access to Fortnite’s copyrighted work. In continuance of this claim, Epic argues that Broom, as a moderator and support person for AddictedCheats.net, materially contributed to the sale, distribution, and use of the Fortnite cheats while actively assisting other cheaters in their pursuit to circumnavigate Epic’s technological security measures.
For Broom’s suspected actions, Epic seeks injunctive relief, actual damages and Broom’s profits attributable to this violation, maximum statutory damages and attorneys’ fees and costs.
Copyright infringement suits have become one of the most common remedies for game developers in the fight against cheating services like Addicted Cheats. In March 2017, Blizzard Entertainment successfully sued the German company Bossland GmbH, famous for creating bots known as “Honorbuddy” and “Hearthbuddy”. In that suit, Blizzard was awarded $8.6 million in damages for approximately 43,000 instances of copyright infringement.
While there is no doubt game developers will continue to use legal remedies against cheating services, it is important for cheaters to recognize that in this case, Epic took action against the Players individually. Instead of suing Addicted Cheats, the service that used the Fortnite cheats, Epic decided to come after Vraspir and Broom, in hopes of holding them individually liable for any damages it may receive.
Although this may not become a trend going forward, since individuals usually do not have as much money as the companies providing the cheating services, game developers may still use this strategy as another way to deter future cheaters and maintain the integrity of their games.
A copy of Epic’s complaints can be read below:
The eSports industry at large has had difficulty curbing the problem of poaching, the practice where one team inappropriately entices a player to join its team while that player is still under contract with another team. Without fail, every few months a new poaching scandal arises. The frequency of these poaching scandals begs the question as to how teams can protect themselves from this happening. Without stricter league governance to disincentivize poaching, the only other option for a team to protect itself is through a lawsuit for tortious interference.
Currently, there is a dispute between two prominent League of Legends teams, Team Solo Mid and H2K, over whether a player entered into a binding agreement with H2K before Team Solo Mid made a counteroffer which the player accepted. However, what makes this particular incident unique is that H2K has made it known that they are considering pursuing legal action against Team Solo Mid for its tortious interference with the player’s agreement with H2K.
Many of the facts surrounding this incident are still unknown and such a lawsuit between these two international businesses raises many questions (like what jurisdiction the case could be brought in). This blog post will address one of the most basic questions involved, specifically, what is a claim for tortious interference? Although the question of jurisdiction will alter the analysis of what’s needed to prove such a claim, this post will examine the cause of action under New York law (as that is where I’m licensed to practice).
In order to prove a claim for tortious interference with a contract in New York, the Plaintiff must show:
In the esports poaching context, this means that the aggrieved team must show:
Although tortious interference can give eSports teams some protection under a poaching scenario, that protection is measured due to the difficulty of proving the claim. In New York, succeeding on such claims has become difficult for a several reasons, one of which being that the complaint asserting the cause of action must specify with particularity how each element of the claim is met (as opposed to making generalized assumptions/conclusions).
Due to the required particularity that a complaint must have in order to assert a viable cause of action, that standard effectively requires that the aggrieved team has sufficient knowledge of the other team’s actions and intentions prior to starting the lawsuit in order to allege facts which support the claim. However, there is no black and white test to determine if a team can allege a sufficient amount of facts to support the cause of action. Of course, the more facts that can be alleged the better. But, this means that bringing any such claim lacks certainty of success from the outset.
Further, such claims may be difficult to prove from an evidence standpoint, as intent and knowledge have high bars of proof to satisfy. What may be particularly helpful from an evidentiary perspective are logs of any online communications, as much of the eSports industry relies upon Skype and similar programs for communications. However, obtaining such communications during the discovery process of such a lawsuit is no easy task as well.
Lastly, it is difficult for tortious interference claims (in general) to succeed due to the availability of the Economic Interest affirmative defense. For reference, an affirmative defense is a set of facts which if the Defendant proves successfully can mitigate or negate liability. In order to prove the Economic Interest defense, the Defendant must show that it acted to protect its own legal or financial stake in the third party’s business. However, the bare fact that the Plaintiff and Defendant are competitors is not enough to justify Defendant’s alleged actions and avail them of this defense. In the context of a poaching situation in eSports, this defense would likely not be available unless a team can show a valid economic interest and not just assert that they were trying to gain a competitive advantage.
Although it may be difficult for an eSports team to pursue a lawsuit for tortious interference when another team has poached a player, it is nonetheless a viable option for a team seeking to protect its interests. Unfortunately, the few governing bodies of esports leagues have done little to disincentivize poaching, forcing teams to either accept the situation, or attempt to avail themselves of their legal rights. However, the cost of legal fees associated with pursuing a lawsuit may discourage teams from enforcing their legal rights. Unfortunately, those costs and the lack of significant league action may force teams to simply accept that their player has been poached.
Its important to remember that poaching, or tampering, is not unique to the esports industry. However, other industries have found more effective ways of disincentivizing the problem. The professional sports industry has had tampering issues arise, but set strict rules and penalties for all tampering offenses, including steep fines, the suspension of the offending person, forfeiture of draft picks, and the prohibition of signing the player being tampered with. Without stronger league governance regarding poaching, like we see in the pro sports industry, teams are left to navigate the costly and difficult road of pursuing legal action for tortious interference if they want to protect themselves.
Quiles Law is an esports and sports law firm based in New York City.
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