The highly regarded “Guide to the Top Lawyers and Law Firms” described CDAS as a “highly skilled boutique offering excellent capabilities handling trademark and copyright infringement cases, as well as substantial portfolio management matters. [CDAS] exhibits expertise acting for market-leading entertainment, media and digital platform clients.” In addition to recognizing the firm for Intellectual Property: Trademark, Copyright & Trade Secrets (New York), Nancy Wolff was also recognized as “a leading attorney in IP issues relating to digital media, counseling clients in a broad range of matters including disputes and licensing.”
With the recent spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 and its unprecedented precipitation of social-distancing, work-from-home policies, shelter-in-place orders, and limitations on foreign travel, many individuals may be questioning whether certain contractual obligations are excused. This article provides a primer on the contract concepts of force majeure, impossibility and impracticability, and related provisions that affect, and may in certain instances excuse, performance of contractual duties owing to changed circumstances outside any signatory’s control.
A force majeure clause is a contract provision that excuses a party’s performance of its obligations under a contract when events beyond the party’s control make performance impossible. To invoke a contract’s force majeure clause, a party must typically demonstrate that (1) a disruptive event enumerated by the force majeure clause has occurred; (2) the risk of nonperformance was not foreseeable; and (3) that the event has rendered the party’s performance impossible.
A party looking to invoke a force majeure clause must follow several steps:
First, a party must examine the contract’s definition of what constitutes a “force majeure” event and demonstrate that the change in circumstances was included within the definition. Force majeure events will have been enumerated within a force majeure clause and generally include: Acts of God; severe acts of nature or weather events including floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, or explosions; war; acts of terrorism; epidemics; acts of governmental authorities such as expropriation or condemnation; changes in laws and regulations; and strikes and labor disputes.
Determining whether a force majeure clause applies is a highly fact-intensive exercise, because whether a party is excused for non-performance stems from the specific contractual language used within an agreement. For example, some contracts’ force majeure provisions may specify disease, epidemics, or pandemics as cause for non-performance, while others may only refer to disease-related disruptions by reference to “Acts of God” or catch-all phrases such as “any event or circumstance beyond the reasonable control of the affected party.”
Where disease-related occurrences have been specifically enumerated, a party may find it easier to invoke its force majeure clause in the context of COVID-19. It may be more challenging where, instead, there is only catch-all language in place; however, a catch-all phrase, or similarly broad language (such as a force majeure clause that begins its list with “including, but not limited to”), may provide some protection, particularly if courts relax their traditional preference for excusing performance solely based on clearly enumerated circumstances, in response to an onslaught of COVID-19 related contract disputes. Additionally, where a party can point to a governmental restriction in place because of COVID-19, it may have additional grounds to defend nonperformance.
Second, an affected party must demonstrate a causal link between the force majeure event and its failure to perform. In other words, a party’s performance must be impossible because of the changed circumstances surrounding the contract. For example, in light of COVID-19, the owner of a performing arts venue may successfully argue that recent government orders in his or her state have made it impossible to continue under contract with scheduled performances and obligations to performers, considering the widespread uptick in closures of non-essential businesses. On the other hand, should both parties to a contract be capable of conducting transactions online and/or having a history of remote online transactions, it may be more difficult to argue that COVID-19 has rendered performance impossible (at least without demonstrating other exigent circumstances).
Upon successfully invoking a force majeure provision, a party may either suspend performance or terminate the contract outright, depending on the scope of its force majeure clause. It is thus important to verify the terms of the clause, which may also dictate that force majeure coverage will only kick in after a certain period has elapsed, such as 90 days.
If the contract does not contain a force majeure clause, a party may turn to the common law defenses of impossibility or impracticability to excuse performance (though note that New York only recognizes impracticability in rare circumstances, such as in connection with sales of goods under the Uniform Commercial Code). A party may also invoke additional contract provisions where present, such as the “Material Adverse Effect” provision common to many commercial contracts.
Impossibility & Impracticability
Impossibility and impracticability exist where circumstances extraneous to a contract render a party’s performance either impossible or impractical. Although the contract itself was adequately formed and would otherwise maintain its binding effect, these defenses recognize that a post-formation change in circumstances has fundamentally altered the ability of the parties to perform under it. A party’s performance will be excused if the following elements are met:
- An unforeseen event has occurred. Akin to the events enumerated in force majeure clauses, these may include natural disasters, strikes, and other major events.
- The nonoccurrence of this event was a basic assumption of the contract. At the time of contracting, the parties did not foresee the event that has since occurred, regardless of whether it was theoretically “foreseeable”. This assumption of nonoccurrence need not be explicitly outlined within the contract, but must be generally apparent from the nature, terms, and purpose of the contract. Under the Uniform Commercial Code, which governs sales of goods, a “[d]elay in delivery or non-delivery in whole or in part by a seller . . . is not a breach of his duty under a contract for sale if performance as agreed has been made impracticable by the occurrence of a contingency the non-occurrence of which was a basic assumption on which the contract was made.” U.C.C. § 2-615. For example, this provision may apply in the event of a labor dispute where striking workers fail to deliver a shipment of the seller’s goods. In such cases, a seller must seasonably notify the buyer of the delay or non-delivery, and, where a seller may still partially perform, must allocate production and deliveries among customers in a “fair and reasonable” manner.
- The effect of the event has rendered the party’s performance impossible or impracticable. The changed circumstance must be extreme, such that it is unduly burdensome or impossible for the party to comply as originally planned; where impossibility is concerned, under New York law, the subject matter of the contract must have been destroyed or the means of performance must have been rendered objectively impossible. The party seeking relief from its obligations under the existing contract must also show that it was not at fault in causing the event. The reasoning behind this requirement is clear: a party should not be able to take advantage of his or her own misconduct. Here, it is also important to determine how risk has been allocated between the parties under the contract. Even where the other requirements are met, if the adversely affected party assumed the risk of the occurrence of the changed circumstances during contract formation (impliedly or explicitly), it will not be able to invoke impossibility or impracticability. To gauge risk allocation, a party should examine the express language of the contract (i.e., what disruptive events the parties contemplated, and which party was to bear the associated loss and expense), or even the parties’ course of business and dealings. Industry customs may also provide clues to proper risk allocation. For example, industry custom in property rentals is for a premises owner to obtain casualty insurance rather than the party hosting its event on site. As such, risk for the loss of the property would flow more naturally to the owner.
Other Contract Clauses
Various additional contractual provisions may relate to an unexpected event like COVID-19.
- Material Adverse Change (MAC) Clause
Many commercial contracts include a material adverse change clause (otherwise known as “material adverse effect”). Where present, this clause could excuse performance or allow a party to suspend performance should a materially adverse change occur. Events constituting a materially adverse change are, as with force majeure provisions, commonly enumerated specifically within the contract and typically also involve wide-scale disruptions.
Historically, MAC clauses have been difficult to enforce, as courts are wary of excusing contractual performance for short-term changes in circumstances, but as is possible with force majeure and related defenses, courts may shift their stance in the coming months. For example, following the September 11, 2001 attacks, New York courts were more amenable to viewing declining rental prices in Manhattan as grounds to declare a material adverse change (See In re Lyondell Chem. Co., 567 B.R. 55, 123 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2017), aff’d, 585 B.R. 41 (S.D.N.Y. 2018) (citing River Terrace Assocs., LLC v. Bank of N.Y., 10 Misc. 3d 1052(A), 2005 WL 3234228 (N.Y. Sup. Ct.), aff’d, 23 A.D.3d 308 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005))). Further, New York courts have allowed commercial parties to cease contractual performance based on demonstrated extensive financial losses during the pendency of a merger (see Katz v. NVF Co., 100 A.D.2d 470, 471 (N.Y. App. Div. 1984)).
Commercial contracts commonly contain covenants obligating parties to undertake or refrain from certain behavior. While it is unlikely that parties would have allocated obligations or risk regarding COVID-19 in a covenant, it is worth revisiting covenants within a contract to gauge whether they will affect or be affected by current circumstances. For example, many agreements include covenants obligating parties to provide notice that they are invoking force majeure or that material events have occurred that could give rise to litigation or loss beyond the ordinary course of business.
- Termination Provisions
Even if parties may not utilize force majeure or other contractual provisions to justify non-performance under a contract, there may be termination provisions that kick in based on the occurrence of certain contingencies, whether at-will or otherwise, such as for late delivery or a breach of a “time is of the essence” clause. It is worth viewing any such provisions within the context of the larger defenses of impossibility, impracticability, and force majeure excusal of nonperformance, in case the other party nonetheless attempts to invoke these doctrines to negate invocation of a termination provision.
This is not the law’s first brush with the unexpected, and although this is a time of wide-reaching uncertainty, woven into contract law, particularly, is a system to guide parties through the serious impacts that unexpected events may have. Our team at Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP will continue to provide updates on legal developments related to the present circumstances and we are available should you request further or specific guidance.
Four years ago, we reported on a headline-worthy copyright infringement lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dealing with tattoos in video games. The case was brought by a licensing entity for tattoo artists against the makers of the popular NBA 2K games over depictions of real-life basketball players’ tattoos on their digital game avatars. Last week, after full discovery and extensive motion practice, Judge Laura Taylor Swain granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion dismissing the plaintiff’s copyright infringement claim on grounds of de minimis use and implied license and granted their cross-motion for a declaration that the depiction of the tattoos in the game constituted fair use. This was the result that we speculated as being the likely outcome in light of the dearth of on-point case law, and it seems to be the correct decision both as a legal and practical policy matter.
2K Games’ NBA 2K series is an annual blockbuster that simulates professional basketball with lifelike depictions of teams, players, arenas, and the sights and sounds of a real NBA game. The goal is a realistic and faithful rendering of the NBA experience. One of the lifelike aspects of the game is the re-creation of players’ distinctive tattoos. Plaintiff claimed that five tattoos for which it owns rights were depicted on NBA players Eric Bledsoe, LeBron James, and Kenyon Martin in the 2014-2016 versions of the game and that such public display violated the Copyright Act of 1976. Solid Oak owns an exclusive license to the five tattoos but does not have permission to recreate them and does not have publicity or trademark rights in the NBA players’ likenesses. On the other hand, the players provided the NBA with the right to license their likenesses to third parties, and the NBA granted such a license to defendants.
The court described the tattoos and explained that, for each one, the tattoo artist “knew and intended that when” the NBA player receiving the tattoo “appeared in public, on television, in commercials, or in other forms of media, he would display” the tattoo; that the artist intended that the tattoos would “become a part of [the player’s] likeness”; and that the player “was and is free to use as he desire[d], including allowing others to depict it, such as in advertisements and video games.” The artists also admittedly knew that the men at issue were NBA players and would likely appear in the media, as well as in video games.
These admissions by the artists were critical to the court’s decision concerning implied license, a critical defense in the context of tattoo copyrights. An implied license can be found “where one party created a work at the other’s request and handed it over intending that the other copy and distribute it.” The court held that such was the case here, explaining that that tattooists admittedly granted the NBA players nonexclusive licenses to use the art as part of their likenesses, prior to granting any rights to Solid Oak, and in turn, the players (through the NBA) implicitly granted defendants the right to depict the tattoos as part of their likenesses.
The court also spent significant time explaining its de minimis infringement ruling. To prove copyright infringement, the plaintiff must prove that the amount copied was not “so trivial as to fall below the quantitative threshold of substantial similarity.” To make this determination, the court analyzed the amount copied; the length of time the work can be seen; and other factors such as focus, lighting, and prominence, as seen through the eyes of an ordinary observer. The court held that all three factors weighed definitively in favor of the defendants and that “no reasonable trier of fact could find the Tattoos as they appear in NBA 2K to be substantially similar to the designs licensed to Solid Oak.”
Laying the foundation of its analysis by describing the many graphical, visual, auditory, and dramatic elements of the 2K games, the court put the overall prominence of the tattoos into stark relief. The five tattoos comprised between 0.000286% and 0.000431% of the total game data; were never depicted separately from the players (who comprised only 3 out of over 400 avatars); appeared between 4.4% and 10.96% of their actual size; and were only visible when a user selected a particular player, and even then were not fully visible, and were indecipherable during actual gameplay given the speed and erratic nature of the avatars’ movement. The court, agreeing with the defendants’ statement of undisputed facts, characterized the tattoos as appearing as nothing more than “visual noise,” and found that, even in the rare event the tattoos were displayed, such display was “small and indistinct” and “cannot be identified or observed.”
Finally, the court engaged in a fair use analysis, holding that all four statutory factors weighed in defendants’ favor. As to the first factor (purpose and character of the use), the court held that the defendants’ use was undisputedly “transformative,” a critical element of fair use. While the games depicted exact copies of the tattoos, its purpose in doing so was not the same as the tattoos’ original purposes of self-expression through body art. Rather, defendants depicted the tattoos to accurately depict the players, notably without even making the details of the tattoos observable. Moreover, the size of the tattoos was significantly reduced and distorted, such that the game offered no “more than a glimpse” of the tattoos’ expressive value and made up an “inconsequential portion of NBA 2K” on the whole. And while NBA 2K was undoubtedly a commercial product, the tattoos were incidental to the commercial value of the game and were not used in the game’s marketing.
The court’s analysis of the second factor (nature of the copyrighted work), was more detailed than a typical analysis of this element of fair use. The second factor asks whether the work is more expressive/creative or factual, and whether the work is published or unpublished, and is typically glossed over by courts as immaterial to the analysis. While the published nature of the tattoos tipped the second factor in defendants’ favor, the court went on to hold that the tattoo designs themselves were actually more factual than expressive “because they are each based on another factual work or comprise representational renderings of common objects and motifs that are frequently found in tattoos.” Downplaying the creative and expressive nature of each of the tattoos based on the circumstances behind their creation, the court observed that the tattooists had admitted that each work “copied common tattoo motifs or were copied from designs and pictures [the artists] themselves did not create.”
The third factor (amount and substantiality of the work used) is also typically glossed over, and this case was no exception. The court noted that even copying the entire work sometimes will fail to weigh against fair use where, as here, the use is deemed transformative. Even so, the court reiterated that the tattoo renditions were reduced in size and barely recognizable on the game screen.
The fourth factor (effect of the allegedly infringing work on existing or potential markets for the work) tends, like the first factor, to receive more weigh in the analysis, and the court found this factor to definitively favor defendants. The court held that the game’s depiction of the tattoos was not a competing substitute for the original. In light of the “transformative” use of the works, the tattoos featured in the games would not serve as market substitutes for the use of the tattoos in any other medium, and plaintiff even conceded that NBA 2K was not a market substitute for the tattoos. The court therefore decided that potential purchasers of the tattoo designs were unlikely to “opt to acquire the copy [in the game] in preference to the original.” Even so, the court found that there was no evidence in the record that a market for licensing tattoos for use in video games or other media was likely to develop.
While the Solid Oak case proceeds because defendants’ counterclaim for fraud on the Copyright Office remains in play, a solid precedent has been set in the new frontier of tattoo-based copyright law. While it is not yet binding (and would only be regionally binding if affirmed on appeal), this decision will be extremely important to digital media companies nationwide given its solid legal analysis and common-sense reasoning. The Solid Oak opinion should be at the top of this year’s cases-to-know list when it comes to content clearance, vetting, and risk assessment, and should ease the concerns of those scratching their heads when facing the potential licensing nightmare that could arise from attempting to clear all body art depicted in popular media. It will also likely prove to be a boon to the stock image industry during an era when tattoos are increasingly common and may appear in more images of people than ever before. On the other hand, artists, and tattoo artists especially, may decry the opinion, in particular the second-factor analysis, which may be interpreted as diminishing the copyrightability of tattoos that depict certain “typical” artistic elements like faces, flames, wizards, and sports equipment. But it is important to note that the ruling on that factor was context-specific, and every work of art will be different and will be created under unique circumstances. Overall, any feared risk to future creators is minimal and is significantly outweighed by the practical benefits afforded to established as well as new and developing forms of media.
Briana Hill, Co-Head of the Beverly Hills office of Cowan DeBaets Abrahams & Sheppard LLP, joins Fred Bimbler and Simon Pulman in leading the firm’s Entertainment group, which includes televison (traditional to broadband), streaming, film, new media, talent, theatre and podcasting. The group assists clients with their entertainment projects through early development, the solicitation of investment, production and ultimate distribution, securing all necessary rights and negotiating agreements with top-tier talent.
Ben Jaffe joins Joshua Sessler in leading the Digital Media & Technology group that represents top digital talent, including game developers and distributors, digital agencies, production houses, broadband video networks, mobile app developers, podcasters and social media ventures. The group provides counsel to a wide range of social media, transmedia and mobile plays that are using emerging software and hardware technologies to create, develop and distribute content in new ways.
Fair use is one of the most important – and most misunderstood – concepts in the area of copyright law. It is an important concept for anyone who is using content owned by third parties – which includes anyone who livestreams gaming, creates “let’s play” videos or otherwise uses gaming assets and branding. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation on the internet and thus creators are often unclear about their rights and responsibilities.
With that said, here are answers to some frequently asked questions for creators:
What is Fair Use?
Fair use is an exception to the general principle that unauthorized use of a copyrighted work is copyright infringement. Simply put, if a claim of copyright infringement is brought against a defendant, the “defendant” can try to demonstrate they made a fair use of the allegedly infringed work in order to prevail in the case.
Because fair use is a defense, only a court can say whether a particular use of copyrighted material is a “fair use.” However, experienced attorneys can provide an opinion, based on their evaluation of the use using the four-factor test (see below) and their knowledge of case law.
What are the Four Factors?
Courts look at four factors when making a fair use determination
- the purpose and character of your use
- the nature of the copyrighted work
- the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
- the effect of the use upon the potential market.
The application of these four factors is nuanced and often complicated, but in short, the use of a copyrighted work is not likely to be fair use if it is used for the same or a similar purpose for which it was originally intended or in advertising/marketing materials, uses a lot of the original work including its most important parts (what the courts have called “the heart of the work”), and/or is used in a manner that competes with the market for the original work. It is more likely to be fair use if the new use is “transformative” in that it comments on, critiques, or otherwise adds new meaning to the original work in some way, if only a small portion of the original work is used (i.e., only enough for the user to make their point), and if the original work is not being used to advertise or otherwise promote the new work or use. So, if a video talks about, for example, loot box mechanics or the historical treatment of race in gaming by using game clips as examples, commenting on and analyzing those clips, it is probably more likely from a legal perspective to be fair use than straight game footage.
Note, however, that there is no bright line amount of use that constitutes fair use. For example, you can never assume that “if you use less than 5%, that’s fair use” – courts have found using only a line or two of text or music to be infringing. If you are in doubt, you should speak to a lawyer.
Is Crediting Important?
It’s nice, and may be considered best practices or industry custom, but it’s generally not relevant for a legal determination of fair use.
Can’t I Use a Disclaimer?
In short, no. Those disclaimers that you see on YouTube stating “This is a fair use. No copyright infringement intended” are generally not legally relevant. There is a small chance that they could be helpful to you in determining the damages that you owe in the event that you are found to be infringing, however, because they may bear on whether your intent was “innocent” or “willful.”
What if I get a DMCA takedown notice? And if a website removes my video, do I have any recourse?
The DMCA notice and takedown process provides copyright owners with a way to request removal of their copyrighted work from a website or other internet service if they believe the use infringes their copyright. To benefit from the “safe harbor” from copyright infringement the DMCA provides ISPs, the website or platform must designate a registered agent to receive and process DMCA takedown notices. DMCA notices must include certain specific information to comply with the law, and the registered agent of the ISP has the job of reviewing and determining whether to comply with the takedown request.
An ISP, such as a platform that hosts gaming content, does not have to comply with a DMCA notice if the notice does not fully comply with the legal requirements for a takedown notice. However, if an ISP does remove content following receipt of a DMCA notice, it must also promptly notify the party that posted the video. That party then can file a counternotice if it believes the content was wrongfully taken down, for instance if the use of the copyrighted work is likely to be a fair use.
Whether you’re a platform looking to benefit from the protections of the DMCA safe harbor, or a content creator looking to correct an improper takedown of your video content, you should consult with an attorney to make sure you’re in compliance with the DMCA’s requirements, and are not taking any actions that could potentially subject you to liability down the line.
Will I Be Sued For My Videogame Videos?
This is where we have good news. Because video game publishers largely view streaming and game-related media to be helpful to their business (under the theory that exposing more people to the game will increase sales), publishers rarely bring copyright infringement lawsuits against gamers. The exceptions where publishers do bring legal action tend to arise in instances where users create new installments of games (what lawyers and courts would call “derivative works”) without authorization, insert other infringing material into games via mods, create and sell software “cheats,” or do something that is offensive in addition to being infringing (e.g., adding explicit or hateful material). In recent years, major players such as Take-Two Interactive and Epic Games have actively policed these types of infringements of their copyrighted games.
This means that it isn’t always necessary to apply the fair use analysis outlined above. However, those creators who are seeking to make heavy commercial use of game assets (other than solely streaming/YouTube video revenue) should consult with an attorney before embarking on their plans to ensure compliance with copyright law.
One of the greatest challenges in defending claims of copyright infringement in the gaming space seems to be the wildcard of the judge’s expertise and understanding of the emerging fields of gaming and streaming. A key defense strategy will inevitably involve a careful framing of the discussion, including describing how the game works, what the purpose of the video is, explaining the meaning of common terms, and the context and communities in which these activities exist online.
Moreover, everyone should keep an eye on the risk factors listed below.
What Red Flags should I be aware of?
While the use of gaming footage in the form of livestreaming and “let’s play” type videos rarely results in a claim, there are a number of uses that creators should be particularly cautious about:
- Licensed music: Any game video that features licensed popular music is more likely to cause an issue with the game creators and/or the owners of the rights in the music being used. Creators are generally fine with exhibiting those videos on YouTube (which has a blanket license with multiple labels), but uses of music in other contexts or on other sites could trigger a DMCA takedown or a copyright infringement claim.
- Choreography: Any videos that use choreography or dance moves tend to pose a higher risk. There has been a spate of recent choreography-related claims alleging that games have made unauthorized use of protected dance moves, in particular against Epic Games for the use of short animations in its game Fortnite. Choreography is probably an overlooked area (versus other areas of copyright risk) and thus it is not a fait accompli that the game publisher will have secured the rights, so a video creator could be pulled into a potential lawsuit. Obviously dance-focused games are highest risk, but other games that include “celebration dances” are also a risk. While many recent choreography-related claims have failed because copyright law does not protect simple routines or common social dances, they are nonetheless costly to defend and could become increasingly risky as the law develops in this area.
- Street Art and Tags: Videos that include any kind of pre-existing graffiti or tags, or even original designs that closely resemble a pre-existing artwork, are similarly susceptible to a copyright infringement claim. Street artists have become notorious copyright infringement plaintiffs in recent years, and like choreography, game creators may not have cleared the rights to these works. The unauthorized use of graffiti may also raise trademark and right of publicity claims, depending on the context in which the tag is used.
- Athletes and other Identifiable Real People: Any gaming footage that includes the recognizable likenesses of real people (e.g., sports games) is susceptible to a claim. This is not actually a copyright issue, but rather falls under what lawyers call “right of publicity” (i.e., a person’s exclusive right to make commercial use of their name [or alias], likeness and other identifiable features). User-generated content that inserts a real person into a game via a mod could also trigger a claim of this type, particularly from celebrities who regularly monetize their names and likenesses.
1. AB5 Brings Uncertainty: The new California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) became effective on January 1, 2020. Originally created to codify the California Supreme Court’s decision in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles (2018) 4 Cal.5th 903 (Dynamex), and to address the increase of misclassification of workers as independent contractors, the drafting of AB5 is so broad that it greatly expands the definition of “employee” in a way that potentially reclassifies most independent contractors as employees. This has huge potential repercussions for many companies doing business in California, including those in the entertainment industry (which has traditionally been extremely reliant on independent contractors), as companies may now need to provide full employment benefits to individuals previously characterized as independent contractors.
While there are certain statutory exemptions, the exemptions do not cover traditional entertainment job categories. There is currently very little guidance as to how the law will be interpreted and enforced, and how it will interact with guild rules. It is incumbent on all studios, producers, networks, and other entertainment companies to watch developments closely, and to consult with knowledgeable counsel when in doubt.
2. Continued Evolution in Streaming: The rise of streaming platforms has dominated the film and episodic programming business over the past few years. 2020 is poised to bring the most significant year of change yet, as new platforms such as HBO Max, Quibi and Peacock will join the recently launched Apple TV+ and Disney+, and incumbents such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. Each of these platforms is targeting a slightly different position in the marketplace, and the economics for content producers vary on a platform-by-platform basis based on the rights and territories that each discrete platform is presently seeking to acquire.
From a deal-making perspective, it is possible that the increased competition will put pressure on platforms to offer greater transparency into the performance of their content and potentially more meaningful participation for creators in the upside of successful series and movies. Additionally, it will be interesting to see if Netflix blinks with respect to its (to date) steadfast insistence on dropping all series on an all-at-once “binge” model, given the plaudits and positive buzz that Disney+ has received for releasing episodes of The Mandolorian on a weekly basis. Finally, Quibi is a truly interesting new entrant that is planning some fascinating creative experiments with short form and interactive content, in addition to providing producers with a business model that is arguably more favorable than some of its competitors.
3. Exclusivity Reigns in Podcasting: 2019 was a year of huge growth and continued maturation for the podcast industry. Mainstream coverage of the industry expanded significantly, many major celebrity names launched podcasts for the first time, and a number of big media conglomerates entered the space or materially increased investments in their podcast divisions. The maturing of the podcast industry has had notable effects on the business side of this burgeoning medium. Participants at all levels in the value chain have started to stake a claim to ownership of, or participation in, podcast rights and revenues. Moreover, the deal-making has become much more sophisticated. Prior to 2019, the dominant podcast distribution model was very simple – make your podcast available on as many ad-supported platforms as possible, and split revenues between stakeholders (usually the creator and the production company or network) (often in a straight 50/50 configuration). This began to change during 2019 as certain companies grew and engaged more experienced representation, and entrants such as Spotify and Luminary started to lock down exclusive rights to content.
Expect the podcast content arms race to heat up in 2020, as high-profile shows and creators commit exclusively to platforms in exchange for sizeable minimum guarantees. However, platforms that offer podcasts in combination with music (such as Spotify, Apple, iHeart, and Pandora) would appear to be best positioned in the market versus pureplay podcast subscription outlets because of their existing subscriber bases and the value proposition of bundling music with podcast (and, indeed, expect 2020 to be the year of the “music podcast”).
4. Gaming Grows: As Netflix Chairman and CEO Reed Hastings famously opined, Netflix is primarily competing with Fortnite rather than with other SVOD platforms. Expect 2020 to be a huge year for gaming, with the release of several big titles (such as Cyberpunk 2077 and The Last of Us 2) being followed by the impending launch of much-anticipated new consoles Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X in the fall.
The continued growth of gaming will fuel a corresponding growth in esports and “game-adjacent content culture” – the creation, consumption and interactive fan participation in content around the culture of videogames, via platforms such as Twitch, Mixer, YouTube and Instagram. All of the next-generation gaming platforms will include built in recording and streaming capabilities allowing gamers to easily create media and engage with other users. While this arguably implicates copyright issues for rightsholders, many of the game companies have taken a permissive stance regarding streaming (and other activities, such as creating derivative works), believing it to be helpful to their business – although distributors must also be cognizant of other issues such as right of publicity.
Additionally, as discussed in a previous blog, expect a flurry of announcements during 2020 and beyond with respect to entertainment extensions of videogame properties – most notably film and TV adaptations, but also podcasts and graphic novels. A significant portion of these will probably involve the original game developers and/or publishers in a meaningful way, as rightsholders understand the importance of maintaining a strong and consistent brand across platforms.
Other sectors of the entertainment business should ignore gaming at their peril. For more, we recommend reading “7 Reasons Why Video Gaming Will Take Over” by Matthew Ball.
The videogame industry is now the most profitable individual sector of entertainment, having experienced exponential growth over the past forty years. Great games can quickly generate a large and unusually engaged fanbase, and as a result it could be argued that games will be the single biggest source of major entertainment brands for the foreseeable future. A cursory glance at Twitch reveals tens or hundreds of thousands of viewers concurrently watching streamers playing games like Fortnite, The Witcher, Sekiro, Overwatch and Grand Theft Auto. Even indie titles like Hollow Knight, Stardew Valley and Untitled Goose Game can attract thousands of attentive viewers. The potential to grow videogame properties into multi-platform entertainment franchises is greater than ever.
Historically, television and film adaptations of videogames have been critical and commercial misfires. However, the general growth of gaming, the increased sophistication of storytelling in videogames, and the general demand for IP-based content (driven in part by the emergence of multiple new streaming platforms) has created a perfect storm. Accordingly, we are currently seeing more videogame adaptation deals than ever before, some of which are very complicated and extremely high level.
While the fundamental structure of acquisition or licensing deals for videogame properties is similar to that used when acquiring older forms of media such as books and articles, there are some specific considerations when dealing with videogame properties, some of which are listed below. It is strongly recommended that parties on both sides of the negotiation engage an attorney and/or agent who is familiar with both the film or TV (as applicable) and videogame businesses to negotiate the deal. It will be very difficult to close a deal without an understanding of the gaming world and what motivates its rightsholders.
- What is the “Property”? : Up until recently, it was relatively easy to define what a “game” was. Games came on disc, cassette, cartridge or CD sold as physical products through brick and mortar retailers for a one-time payment. Successful games yielded sequels and spinoffs (and sometimes “add ons”), but games were generally released in a fixed form. With the emergence of digital distribution and the concept of “games as a service,” that has gone out of the window. Games are now routinely and regularly patched, updated, supplemented and expanded via a combination of free and paid downloadable content (or “DLC”). For example, the game No Man’s Sky has been updated and expanded so comprehensively since its launch in 2016 that it is almost unrecognizable as an experience from the version released at launch. As a result, it is imperative that buyers understand what they are acquiring – and unless negotiated otherwise for a very specific reason, the “Property” that is granted to the buyer should include all elements, versions, expansions and content relating to a title, for as long as such title is supported. Ideally, all sequels and spinoff games would be included in the rights grant as well (but that is a more nuanced subject that may require some discussion).
- Investigate Third Party Interests: While other forms of properties (including novels and podcasts) can have complicated chain-of-title issues, videogames are particularly likely to have unforeseen ownership and/or approval issues complicating the acquisition process. Often the rights in the game may be owned and controlled by a publisher, but sometimes the actual creator or developer may have approval rights or other interests that need to be addressed. Things get even more complicated when dealing with Japanese properties, where there may be one or more intermediaries to deal with before one is able to negotiate directly with the rightsholder. It is important to ask the right questions at the very start of negotiations to be able to identify and address any specific issues.
- Discuss Controls and Approvals: While television and (particularly) film producers often view their medium as the pinnacle of artforms, it is important for producers to understand that – in many circumstances – a videogame publisher or developer does not need them. Many videogame rightsholders make millions or billions of dollars solely from videogame sales, which can then be supplemented through the sale of DLC and merchandise. Even independent developers may be able to make a good living through a combination of the right business model and smart engagement with their fanbase. As a result, rightsholders will often be extremely cautious about entering into any kind of arrangement that could tarnish or dilute their brands. No sophisticated rightsholder today would agree to the kind of agreement that yielded the likes of Super Mario Bros. (1993), Street Fighter (1994), BloodRayne (2006) or Tekken (2009), all of which were critically lambasted and bore little relation to their source material.
Indeed, many videogame rightsholders are unlikely to be prepared to enter into a traditional option purchase type arrangement where they are viewed as passive rightsholders without any kind of active involvement or approval. Producers therefore need to think carefully and walk a tightrope to ensure that they make the rightsholder feel invested and comfortable, without ceding control in a manner that could jeopardize their ability to set up and produce the project. Of course, if they can strike the right balance then the dividends – both creative and financial – could be spectacular.
This Blog is an Update to a Previous Post. To read the original post, please click here.
On August 1, 2014, we reported that former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega had filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court against Blizzard/Activision over Activision’s portrayal of the despot in its highly successful game “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” (“Call of Duty”). On October 27, 2014, the California Superior Court dismissed Noriega’s complaint in its entirety, with prejudice, granting Activision’s special motion to strike pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, California’s “anti-slapp” statute, which is aimed at curtailing lawsuits brought for the purpose of chilling free speech. Under the statute, when a defendant can show that its work constitutes protected speech, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate a probability of prevailing on his claim. The court held that Noriega had not satisfied his burden, and that his “right of publicity is outweighed by defendants’ First Amendment right to free expression.” Continue reading
Note: This blog is cross-posted from Law360.com with permission of Portfolio Media, Inc.
A lawsuit filed in California Superior Court has taken video game right-of-publicity cases beyond college athletes and Hollywood celebrities. Former Central American despot Manuel Noriega, from his prison cell in Panama, is suing Blizzard/Activision over Activision’s portrayal of Noriega in its highly successful game “Call of Duty: Black Ops II.”
Manuel Noriega ruled Panama in the 1980s as a military dictator, and has been in prison in the United States, France, and Panama since 1992 for drug smuggling, money laundering and the murder of political opponents. “Black Ops II,” released in 2012, is the latest installment in Activision’s military first-person shooter series “Call of Duty,” and netted over $1 billion in sales worldwide in its first few weeks on the shelves. Continue reading