Tag Archives: Vancouver video game lawyer

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.

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.

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.