(This post was contributed by Patrick Hankins, a 3L at Marquette University Law School and an intern at Quiles Law)
Last month, Epic released its first wave of items from its “Icon Series,” a collection of in-game items, emotes, and skins from some of its top Fortnite Creators. Epic’s first featured creator of the collection was Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, whose likeness was immortalized game as a purchasable character skin. Next, Imane “Pokimane” Anys had her TikTok dance moves motion captured to be available as a purchasable dance emote in a limited-time sale.
Epic’s “Creators” are any players that are partnered with them through the Support-a-Creator Program, a partnership system that allows individuals with at least 1000 followers to earn a small percentage of revenue from any in-game transaction when their code is used at checkout. Not only does the Icon Series provide some of the most sizable Creators a new avenue of partnership revenue, but it is also a way for them to continue to cultivate their brand.
The Legal Mechanism
To have a personal emote in the game, these content creators must enter into a licensing agreement with Epic Games. At the base level, a licensing agreement is a contract that authorizes another party to utilize the licensing party’s name, likeness, logos, and any other related intellectual property rights. A licensing agreement would specifically identify the limited uses for the licensed property, like producing Pokimane’s emote which was available for a period of time. Additionally, any payment terms would be specified in the license agreement. Fortunately, licensing agreements can have creative payment arrangements, like a percentage of the licensed product sold, a flat fee, or a combination of the two. Of course, how sizable this payment is is related to how substantial the licensing party’s brand is, as well as any exclusivity.
Learning from the Lawsuits
In the past, Epic Games has been sued for using public figures’ dance moves in Fortnite. Among these lawsuits, probably most notable was a December 2018 claim by Alfonso Ribeiro, best known for his portrayal as “Carlton” in the popular TV show, “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” claiming copyright infringement and a violation of his right of publicity because Epic had stolen his three-step dance move without his permission, proper credit, or compensation and added it into the game as the “Fresh” dance sold in-game. Shortly after in January 2019, Ribeiro tried to register the “Carlton Dance” with the U.S. Copyright Office but was refused because his claimed choreographic was a simple dance routine. Ribeiro’s case has since been dropped, but not before it became highly publicized.
In contrast to the emote lawsuits, the introduction of the Icon Series is a win for all parties involved. By reaching out to its loyal Creators instead of “finding inspiration” among some of pop culture’s most celebrated individuals, Epic avoids the negative PR of alleged intellectual property infringement and builds among existing promotions through licensing agreements. Epic’s partnerships with its creators show the Fortnite community that they actively want to support those that have contributed to the game’s success. In turn, the Creators have another revenue stream and have associated their name, brand, and likeness with significant in game advertising.
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