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Cross-border law firm advising startups and game studios on California and B.C. corporate and technology law.

Video Game Studio Intellectual Property Strategy

Recently we’ve seen an uptick in interest among video game studios looking to protect their intellectual property, with a focus on protecting characters and game/studio names.

Here is a list of priorities that should be considered when determining or developing a video game studio’s intellectual property strategy (in common order of priority).

1. Trademark protection for the game name and/or logo

With a successful game comes the risk that a competitor may produce a similar game and brand it with similar game title and/or logo.  Obtaining trademark protection of a game title and/or logo ensures your right to stop competitors from using the goodwill and reputation associated with your game title and/or logo.

2. Copyright protection for game characters

Obtaining copyright registrations is best suited for protecting the main character or characters of a game and can be used to stop unauthorized or unlicensed use of the character(s) on things such as t-shirts, plush animals, bobble head toys, clothing, hats, cups and mugs, etc.

3. Trademark protection for a studio name and/or logo

Finally, the studio should protect the goodwill and reputation associated with a studio name and/or logo through trademark registrations.

While a studio may not have financial resources to pursue all of the above at the start of development, it’s critical for the studio to at least develop an intellectual property portfolio strategy and plan to execute over time as resources permit.

Intellectual Property Rights for Video Game Studios

For our video game clients, protecting intellectual property is an important part of their business.   Intellectual property protection for a video game commonly comes in the form of trademark and copyright but may also involve patents and trade secrets

Trademarks can protect the titles and logos associated with a game.  Without a registered trademark, another studio could register a trademark that is confusingly similar to your existing game, thereby creating confusion, negatively impacting your ability to enforce trademark rights and potentially the complete loss of all trademark rights.

Copyright can protect game code, artwork, music and characters.  A copyright registration could be obtained on a particular character used in a game to prevent third parties from creating and selling plush toys based on the character.  

Patents can protect new and innovative hardware, systems, technical solutions, innovative game play or design elements and technical innovations such as networking or database design.  

Trade secrets can protect customer mailing lists, pricing information, publisher contracts, developer contracts, in-house development tools, and terms and conditions of any agreement the studio enters into.  Note that the enforcement of a trade secrets requires that a confidentiality agreement be put in place.

The following chart provides a helpful overview of intellectual property protection options:

Copyright  ProtectsTrademark ProtectsPatent ProtectsTrade Secret Protects
MusicStudio nameHardware systemsCustomer mailing lists
CodeStudio logoInventive game playPricing information
StoryGame titleTechnical innovations such as new software, networking or database designsPublishing contacts
Characters  Middleware contacts
Art  Developer contacts
Box design  In-house development tools
Website design  Deal terms

We recommend that studios become familiar with the range of intellectual property protections available and to prepare an intellectual property strategy for both the studio and its games.  

SAFEs and the BC EBC Tax Credit

SAFEs (Simple Agreement for Future Equity) are used by early stage companies to raise investment without requiring the parties to determine the company’s value.  Instead, future events determine the company’s value and prompt conversion of the SAFE into equity.  As of March 2, 2019, SAFEs are now eligible for the British Columbia Eligible Business Corporation (EBC) tax credit, subject to certain requirements being met.

The EBC tax credit, in simple terms, is a 30% BC government tax credit received by investors for investments made in small businesses operating in qualifying industries in BC.  In order for an investor to receive the tax credit: the company must be operating in a qualifying industry; registered for the EBC credit; the investment structure must qualify; and funds must be allotted and available to the company for issuance of the credit.  Industries qualifying for the credit are quite broad and include: manufacturing; research and development of new technologies; destination tourism; digital media products; clean tech and advanced commercialization.  BC also offers a similar tax credit for Venture Capital Corporations, which operates under the same overall program.

SAFEs typically contain clauses rendering them ineligible for the EBC tax credit and the BC government did not originally allow SAFEs to be used in tandem with the EBC tax credit.  This posed a significant problem for small business that raised money with SAFEs.

While SAFEs are now eligible for the EBC tax credit, they need to be altered to remove clauses that make them ineligible.  While the alterations required depend largely where the SAFE documents originate, be it from Y Combinator or a SAFE drafted by a Canadian law firm, clauses that need to be removed include:

  • fixed term lengths of less than 5 years (admitted, more of a Convertible Note clause);
  • repayment prior to 5 years from the date of investment;
  • interest features (eligible SAFEs cannot operate as loans, again, more of a Convertible Note clause);
  • assignment clauses (except in very limited circumstances); and
  • liquidity and dissolution clauses that either allow for certain priority or preference over shareholders.

There are two ways to fix these issues:

  • redraft the SAFE to make it compliant; or
  • have each SAFE investor waive in perpetuity all rights that would make the SAFE ineligible.  

The first approach is preferable as a wavier may cause unforeseen problems if the SAFE is not drafted with a wavier in mind and may inadvertently cause an investor to forgo important negotiated terms. 

Nearly all of the SAFEs we review are ineligible for the EBC tax credit so investors should be wary if a company claims that their SAFE is EBC eligible.  Furthermore, as EBC program funds can run out every year, we recommend planning ahead and making sure that all your documents are in order so the tax credit is not missed out on.

California Consumer Privacy Act comes into Force Jan. 1, 2020

The California Consumer Privacy Act (the “CCPA”) is a new law intended to enhance privacy rights and consumer protections for California residents, which comes into force on January 1, 2020. 

In the lead-up to the CCPA coming into force, this blog post covers three common questions we receive: (1) do I need to comply? (2) when do I need to comply? and (3) what happens if I do not comply?

1.         Do I need to comply? Probably, but not directly.  Most companies that operate from Canada or in states other than California, will not directly have to comply with the CCPA as the territorial scope of the law is fairly limited, especially when compared with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulations (the “GDPR”).  To fall under the territorial scope of the CCPA, you have to be a for-profit business doing business in the State of Californiaand have one of three factors apply: 

(a) gross revenue of over $25,000,000 USD

(b) handle the personal information of more than 50,000 consumers, households or devices (it is unclear in the Act, at this stage, whether this is a California or world-wide number); or 

(c) derive more than 50% of annual revenue from the selling of consumers’ personal information.  

While the CCPA may not apply directly to many companies, as we saw with the GDPR rollout in 2018, the CCPA will likely indirectly apply as major tech companies like Google and Apple will have to comply with this law and as such, they will likely require, as part of their own compliance requirements, that companies they do business with that collect personal information also comply.  The extent of this indirect compliance is currently unclear and may only apply to certain provisions of the CCPA.

2.         When do I need to comply?  The effective date of the CCPA (the date at which the CCPA becomes law), is January 1, 2020, and while enforcement by the California Attorney General’s office may not begin until supporting regulations are finalized (deadline for regulations is June 1, 2020), we recommend that companies that need to comply directly begin compliance work immediately and aim to be fully compliant by January 1.  Companies that only need to comply indirectly may have some time to wait and see how the CCPA will affect contracts and terms with CCPA compliant companies but it won’t hurt to be compliant by early 2020. 

3.         What happens if I do not comply?  Beware of the cost!  There are several penalty clauses in the CCPA, including $2,500 for each non-intentional violation and $7,500 for each intentional violation.  If you have over 50,000 users, these penalties can easily amount to over $125,000,000.  For companies that will have to comply indirectly through contracts or user agreements, beware of indemnification clauses and other liability amendments that may push these penalties onto your company.

For many companies, the CCPA may not directly apply. However, it’s important to monitor CCPA factors, relative to your company’s business, to ensure that you do not miss compliance should a factor be met in the future – this is especially important in rapidly growing startups where it’s easy for a compliance obligation to be missed. Even if the CCPA factors are not met, there may be an obligation to comply as large tech companies will likely be complying and force compliance on everyone else they do business with.