Tag Archives: video game 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.  

Preparing your Privacy Policy for Apple Arcade

With the recent launch of Apple Arcade, we’re encountering a rush of clients seeking advice on how to make their Privacy Policy compliant with Apple Arcade rules. Apple Arcade requires a different Privacy Policy than the iOS store and submitting your standard Privacy Policy will most likely result in your title being rejected from Apple Arcade.

While we have yet to encounter a published instruction manual for Apple Arcade Privacy Policy compliance, we have noticed the following three trends:

  1. Heavy Focus on Limiting Information Collection. Apple is taking data protection seriously and an Arcade-compliant Privacy Policy must limit its information collection to only that information that a developer truly requires. In most cases, Apple will question each item of information collected and require substantive backing for why such information must be collected. Ultimately, don’t be surprised to discover that the final product is a stripped-down Privacy Policy in which you collect very little information, even if this causes the information collection practices of the same game across different platforms to vary.
  2. Active Review Process. Apple is very involved in each Privacy Policy and anticipate a formal review process (as compared to the seamless process you see in the iOS store). Each clause is closely scrutinized and Apple will push back on each item of information collected, even going so far as to suggest ideal language.
  3. Review is Inconsistent. Perhaps reflecting the absence of a published manual for Arcade Privacy Policies (we’ve yet to locate one), each review proceeds differently and what raises issues for one review may not for you. We have been surprised to discover that a clause accepted for one game will be rejected for a different game. Eventually Apple will develop constituent review standards but until then it’s important to work with legal counsel that has done Arcade deals in the past and can put that knowledge to work when negotiating with Apple.

Launching on Apple Arcade is still novel and Apple is still getting up to speed with the Privacy Policy review process. As such, it’s important to work with legal counsel that’s familiar with the Arcade review process to ensure your title passes review quickly.

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.