Thursday, September 5, 2013

Former NFL star Jim Brown made a strategic error in suit against EA Sports.

NFL hall-of-famer Jim Brown lost a recent appeal against EA Sports, in which Brown alleged that EA Sports used his likeness in the Madden series of video games without his consent. EA Sports is also a defendant in the NCAA student-athlete likeness antitrust litigation, and there are similarities between the two cases. The plaintiffs in the NCAA student-athlete likeness antitrust litigation alleged that their likenesses were used in video games without their consent. In the NCAA and NFL video games, names were not used, but other aspects of the players were imitated. The video game players shared the same jersey number, size, physical skills, skin color and other attributes with their real-life counterparts.

The names of most players are used in the Madden series of video games, because they are licensed by the NFL players' union (NFLPA). Player names that were not licensed by the NFLPA were not included in the game unless consent was given. There is no college football players' union, so no player names were used in the NCAA Football video game.

Brown made a strategic error in his lawsuit. The student-athletes' lawsuit alleged that the use of their likenesses was an antitrust violation. Brown alleged that the use of his likeness was a violation of federal trademark law, which was largely inapplicable to his case.

If Brown sued under common law rights of publicity, his claim would have survived dismissal because a different legal analysis would have applied. Instead, EA Sports filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted and affirmed on appeal.

Basically, in addressing the claim under trademark law, the court only considered the publicity rights issue insofar as it pertained to a violation of trademark law. Since Jim Brown's likeness is not a federal trademark, trademark law was largely inapplicable in his case. Brown should have known of the pending NCAA student-athlete likeness antitrust litigation, and amended his complaint to include a publicity rights claim.

If Brown had done this, when the trademark claim was dismissed, he could have still litigated the publicity rights claim. Since he did not, and the dismissal has now been granted, he is precluded from bringing the publicity rights issue in a new lawsuit.

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