Lawsuit Threatens To Tackle 'Madden NFL' Profits
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Fans of the National Football League have a few more weeks before the season kicks off. In basements and living rooms, those who play virtual football are already enjoying the action. Yesterday, the latest version of the popular video game "Madden NFL" went on sale.
But one former NFL player, who is representing 6,000 other retired players, is suing the maker of the Madden video game. The suit accuses Electronic Arts of illegally using the likenesses of ex-NFL players in a previous version of the game. Erik Malinowski is a writer for Wired.com and he joined us to explain the suit.
Mr. ERIK MALINOWSKI (Wired.com): Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: So illegally using the likenesses of ex-NFL players. What exactly does that mean?
Mr. MALINOWSKI: This suit specifically targets the "Madden NFL '09" release. And what that game had was some 140, quote, unquote, "historic teams" chock full of players that used to play in the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s.
Electronic Arts has a licensing deal with the NFL Players Association to use the likenesses of active players. But what they don't have are the rights to use likenesses of retired players. So what they do to fill out these rosters and to make them seem as authentic as possible is to fill them up with players that closely resemble the players of yore.
MONTAGNE: And so closely that, I mean, you really know who they are? You've seen the game. You've played the game, right?
Mr. MALINOWSKI: Well, right. Well, you know, the "Madden NFL" franchise has been so successful because of its authenticity. So what they do in these cases, at least what the suit alleges, is that they take the players actual attributes and characteristics and they play a player's jersey number a few digits or they'll change a player's weight by a few pounds.
What the suit alleges is that these differences are so minor and so inconsequential, that it basically amounts to using their likenesses without permission or due compensation.
MONTAGNE: And Electronic Arts says what about this?
Mr. MALINOWSKI: They have not publicly commented on this, citing pending litigation.
MONTAGNE: Now, who is the person - the individual former player behind the lawsuit? I know he represents thousands of others, but what does he want?
Mr. MALINOWSKI: His name is Tony Davis, and he played six seasons in the NFL as a running back in the late '70s and early '80s. And over the years, he's been a very outspoken advocate for the rights of former players. For a couple of years now, he's been gathering up players to participate in this lawsuit. And he's corralled somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 former players now.
MONTAGNE: And what are the chances of this lawsuit succeeding?
Mr. MALINOWSKI: Well, they might not be pretty bad. I mean, there was a lawsuit back in 2008, that some 2,000 former NFL players filed against the NFL Players Association for licensing deals that they made with various companies, including Electronic Arts, that they were due millions in back royalties for using their likenesses and appearances without due compensation.
And a jury actually awarded the retired players some $28 million. And it's interesting then, in the wake of that suit then being decided that way, that in the next iteration of "Madden NFL," the company discontinued its use of historic teams.
MONTAGNE: Erik Malinowski is a writer for Wired.com.
Thanks very much for talking with us.
Mr. MALINOWSKI: Thank you, Renee.
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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
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