Tag Archives: Waterloo Startup Lawyer

The Two Questions I ask new Startups and Studios

Each week I meet with prospective clients that are excited to be launching a new startup or video game studio.  Regardless of the differences between these clients, I inevitably end up asking two important questions at the start of every meeting:

1.  Have you incorporated?

Many clients incorporate without legal counsel, which I have no problem with.  However, by incorporating without a lawyer, prospective clients are often left with a few problems that I am attempting to unearth and that I know will need to be remedied:

A. The company’s paperwork is incomplete.  While a company exists once the filings are made with the state/province/federal government (if a federal, Canadian company), there are a number of resolutions, registers, receipts and other documentation that a company requires in order to have a complete minute book.  The preparation of the foregoing is the bulk of a lawyer’s work incorporating a company and will need to be prepared, especially if the company aims to raise capital as this documentation will be requested as part of standard due diligence.

B.  Too few shares were issued.  If you incorporated a company with 1, 10 or 100 shares, too few shares were issued and should be split or additional shares issued.  This avoids fractional shareholding in the future (imagine offering someone .25% and 10 shares are issued to date) and also makes equity offers to prospective employees more appealing (10,000 shares appear more attractive than 1 share, even if the same percentage ownership results).

C.  Too many share classes created or the wrong share classes created.  I always ask clients their reasons for a particular share class as both client and lawyer should understand the reasons behind the company’s structure.  Since most startups are incorporated with a single, common, share class, I push prospective clients to explain and even justify other classes.  Additionally, if a preferred share class exists, what are the rights and restrictions associated with this class?  Inevitably, no preferred rights and restrictions were specified,requiring the creation of these rights or restrictions or, more likely, deleting the preferred share class.

2.  Have you Transferred IP to the Company?

Clients mistakenly assume that the company they incorporate automatically owns the intellectual property they create.  While someone may be a shareholder (even the sole shareholder) or a director, this does not automatically transfer ownership of intellectual property created by such person(s) to the company.  Indeed, without a contractor, employment or assignment agreement in place, each founder remains the owner of the intellectual property they create.  As a result, the company may not own a core asset and cannot be in a position to license that asset to third parties.  Additionally, by asking this question I am often told about contractors who created intellectual property for a founder or the company without an agreement in place, which will also need to be corrected.

Based on these two questions, I am often able to obtain a full picture of a company and its history and put in place the key documents required to address any issues unearthed.   If you are embarking on a new venture be sure to keep these two questions in mind – doing so may prevent future legal headaches (and fees).  Or, you could read my suggestions on corporate structure and IP assignments here and here.

Video Game Profit Sharing Structures

Our video game studio clients often come to us with plans to split game profits among the team members but require advice on the form this split should take.  Three main approaches exist for structuring your video game profit share:

1.  Profit Sharing Agreement

The most common approach is the Profit Sharing Agreement.  This agreement is between the company and each person participating in the profit share and sets out the profit sharing terms and contains key terms such as:

  • How profit is calculated.  For example, revenue received by the company from sales of the game minus publisher royalties, platform fees, certain operating costs etc.
  • What constitutes the “game”.  Does the game include DLC, HD/upscaled/remastered versions, sequels etc.?
  • Adjustment of each person’s percentage if future participants added. 
  • What is the profit sharing duration?
  • Is there a cap on payouts?
  • Termination upon acquisition of the company or the game, perhaps with a lump payout.
  • What happens if the company receives investment?

The benefit to this approach is that the participants are not shareholders in the company and, as a result, do not have a say in how the company is operated or a right to receive payouts from future games developed by the company.  However, the parties need to ensure that the agreement is thorough in its scope as any ambiguity or overlooked scenario could create major headaches in the future.

2.   Create a Separate Company for each Game

Under this approach, a separate company is created for each game you develop, with the commonality being that the main company you incorporated (the studio) is a majority shareholder (51% and up) in each of these separate companies.  For example: Studio Company owns 66 2/3% of Game 1 Company.  The separate company would receive profits from the game and distribute them to the shareholders based simply upon their shareholding (although more complex special rights and restrictions could also be put in place).  Intellectual property for each game may rest with the separate company or the main company.  Profits from the game would be distributed as a dividend to the shareholders.

This approach works well if each person is expecting an interest in the company developing the game with the benefit that these persons cannot participate in future games developed by the main company (which may be unrelated to the current game).  However, when pursuing this approach, it is important to obtain tax advice to ensure that distribution of the profits between the companies is structured efficiently.

3.  Issue Shares in your Company to Profit Share Participants

Under this approach, a special class of non-voting share (the profit share class)  is issued to the profit share participants and contains a dividend right to receive a portion of game profits, which would contain similar terms as described in approach 1 above.  This approach is similar to approach 2 above except that no separate company is created.  However, additional terms are also required, such as:

  • Share retractability:  this allows the company to repurchase the profit sharing shares in the future.
  • Voting trust:  this takes control of some or all of the voting rights of the non-voting shareholders  (see non-voting shareholder’s limited voting rights).

The problem with this approach stems from the fact that the profit share participants may only be involved in one game but the studio may continue on to make other games, which the profit share participant should not receive a financial benefit from.  Further, by being a shareholder (without detailed share rights and restrictions), the shareholder may be able to participate in profits from future, unrelated titles, benefit from sale of the company and/or exert their rights as a shareholder to participate in the company’s direction.  To alleviate these problems, complex terms and agreements are likely needed (see retractability and the voting trust) to ensure that the profit share shareholders only benefit from the game they worked on and have a limited right, if any, to participate in the company’s direction.

As a first step, it’s critical to recognize that your profit sharing agreement needs to be documented in writing.  Second, you must reflect on the relationship you desire with the profit sharing participants (duration, scope of their involvement etc.) and analyze that relationship relative to the features of each of the above approaches.

NDA Pitfalls

Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) are a critical part of a technology company’s legal arsenal but are often relegated to a standard template without much thought.  Too often, I’ve seen NDAs sent by sophisticated companies that contain a number of pitfalls that often negate some of the protections that NDAs are relied upon for.  While there are numerous pitfalls to be watched for when drafting and reviewing NDAs, I wanted to highlight a few pitfalls that I frequently encounter that are often missed by both disclosing and receiving parties:

1.  Duration

While it may seem obvious it bears repeating: the duration of a NDA matters.  Often the NDAs I receive specify a relatively brief duration: usually between 2 and 5 years.  Problematically, after the time-period expires the protections provided by the NDA lapse and the previously confidential information can be disclosed at will.  While you may not believe that confidential information would be valuable 5 years into the future, this could be a costly assumption – image if the Coca-Cola recipe was treated the same?

NDAs should specify a perpetual duration unless you have a specific reason for limiting the duration.  Regardless, if the NDA duration has a limit you should be very careful to disclose only information that you’re comfortable becoming public information in the future.

2.  Who Can be Disclosed to

I often encounter NDAs that classify the NDA itself as confidential information that can only be disclosed with permission from the other party.  While seemingly innocuous, this treatment of the NDA can become a massive headache when it comes time to sell your company or its technology.  For example, you could be prohibited from disclosing the mere existence of the NDA to the purchaser or its legal counsel.

NDAs should permit disclosure of the NDA itself to your professional service providers, third parties proposing to engage in transactions with your company and their professional service providers.

3.  Scope of Protection

Do not neglect the scope of the NDA’s protection.  Obviously the NDA should protect information physically disclosed or spoken to the other party but there may be certain things disclosed to the other party that don’t fall within the typical scope of “information”.  For example, you may want the NDA to protect things that are visually perceived by the other party when on-site or sounds heard by the other party (this could matter if the sound of a machine could be used to determine a key design feature).

Always consider what you are disclosing under the NDA and be sure that the scope of the NDA’s protection matches the scope of disclosure as well as inadvertent, passive, disclosures that may take place.

Ultimately, the pitfalls with a NDA, as with any legal document, originate from the treatment of the NDA as a standard templated agreement.  The NDA is a powerful document that should be carefully crafted to reflect your particular business needs and to avoid the above pitfalls.

You Need a Streaming License

Streamers are increasingly important to the success of indie video games and our clients often encourage streaming as a way to increase exposure without substantial expense.  However, recent streamer controversies illustrate the need for developers to include an explicit streaming license and code of conduct within the game’s End User License Agreement (EULA) with broad grounds for termination.

What is a streaming license?  A streaming license expressly grants users a license to stream the video game but makes it clear that this license can be revoked at any time, without notice or compensation.  Without this language, substantial ambiguity remains concerning the scope of the license and impact of termination.  Consider the following example:

DEVELOPER grants you a license to publicly display the Game on online video streaming websites, such as youtube.com and twitch.com, and social media, such as tweeting a GIF. DEVELOPER may terminate or modify the scope of this license at any time without notice or compensation and will not be liable to you or any third party for any loss incurred relating thereto.

You can also draft the license to fit your company’s particular needs.  For example, the streaming license could prohibit monetization of the stream.

Do you have a Code of Conduct?  In addition to a streaming license, we recommend that the EULA contain a user code of conduct that prohibits certain conduct, such as profanity, nudity etc.  Breach of this code could provide a basis for terminating a user’s streaming license, although not the only basis.

Can’t I just use the DMCA?  Yes, a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) claim is the quickest way to secure removal of a stream and  a clear streaming license (with termination language) provides a clear basis for making the DMCA claim.  Without a streaming license, unnecessary ambiguity remains concerning the impact of termination (for example, could liability follow if you terminate a lucrative stream that was previously permitted?).

In sum:  It benefits your streaming community to receive a clear streaming license and to understand the basis upon which the license can be used and revoked.  While you can remove an offensive stream without such a clause (under the DMCA), ambiguity does little to benefit your company or streaming community.