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Legally Speaking
World of intellectual property in and around e-sports

INTRODUCTION

Electronic sports or e-sports is an emerging industry where competing games are played via electronic systems online. These are mostly multiplayer games where the players can be anywhere in the world connected through internet. The tremendous growth in the e-sports market has led to major leagues being organised where audiences are sold tickets to watch the game, exactly like physical sports. This has become a million dollar industry and attracts younger generations of people because of the use of virtual and augmented reality. Singapore opened an e-sports academy to train students to become e-sports professionals.

The E-sports Federation of India (ESFI), a non-profit organisation, promotes and organises these gaming events and help train the athletes. It will not be correct to call them gamers as there is a significant difference between gaming and e-sports. The latter requires a lot of concentration, hand eye coordination, and decision making skills. The level of preparation by e-sports athletes is same, if not more, as the physical sports athletes. Regardless of the popularity and the opportunities that they provide, the disputes between the sports industry and the underlying intellectual property rights have always been there. The lack of regulations with respect to technology in India has always been a matter of concern. Intellectual property protection of any sport is a complex issue to decide 'who owns what' and 'what leads to infringement' as it includes various elements like the performance, broadcast and the ownership of the game itself.

The company that owns the game has a set of rights on advertising, promoting, and licensing. The need for a regulatory framework has grown significantly and the same has been constantly debated whether it should be included under the scope of physical sports or if it requires a new legislation.

RECOGNITION OF ONLINE GAMING AS E-SPORTS

The International Olympics Committee declared 'competitive e-sports' as a sporting activity in 2017. Later in 2019, the committee changed its stance on the subject by shifting focus to the physical and mental health of the players in a game and how a physical sport promotes an active lifestyle as opposed to online gaming.

The IOC has also raised concern on the level of violence in esports. South Korea, Japan, and Malaysia are among the many countries that have sports federations now to support, coach, and organise competitive events for e-sports. The United States Government is even granting visas to e-sports professionals.

E-sports was also seen as a demonstrating sport in the 2018 Asian Games. India is not far behind in the field with ESFI organising various leagues in different cities and for different games. It can be said that India may soon have a governing body for the same.

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS OF E-SPORTS

Video games have always been popular among millions of people for entertainment purposes. With the advent of technology, online games like FIFA, League of Legends, DOTA, etc. became mainstream. The players who were only considered consumers before are now making profits by playing these online games in the comfort of their home. The athome video games have now become a major event with advertisers and sponsors investing their money in it.

The major source of income for organisers is selling tickets and advertising different brands in the tournaments. To a common man, it looks like a person (here, the e-sport player) paid for a product (here, the e-sport) and is now using it for himself as he owns it. Looking from a legal perspective, there a number of intellectual property rights associated with any product, even an e-sport. Intellectual property protects inventions, literary works, artistic works, designs, logos, etc. Before getting into the types of IP protection, it is important to understand the developer-player relationship with respect to the intellectual property of the game.

A developer is the person who owns the game and the customer is the one who downloads or purchases it. The customer enters into an end user agreement or a limited license which allows him play the game or in other words, use the developer's IP. Each developer can put different conditions in their agreement ranging from not using their game for commercial purposes to not allowing any modification in the game. The developer has the complete ownership of the game and has the power to allow tournaments and streams. This gives rise to the question as to how the players earn money via streaming on channels like YouTube.

The streaming channels pay a person according to the number of views that they have on their video and the number of advertisements that they put in their stream. The gamers cannot earn anything from playing the game as it is protected under copyright. The developers also have the right to terminate your license at any point. The superior position that the owners enjoy gives them an unfair advantage over the professional players who want to make a living out of e-sports. The different types of IP protection that an e-sport enjoys are:

COPYRIGHT PROTECTION FOR E-SPORTS

  1. Copyright protects the right of creators and is considered as a reward for their creativity. It gives them the exclusive right to produce, publish or perform their work and prohibits others from doing so
  2. Algorithm and Audiovisual elements.
  3. Although there is no specific legislation dealing with e-sports in India, copyright protects different elements of the game. The source code of the game comes under the scope of computer programs, the audio-visual part of the game can is a cinematographic work, the theme of the game and any type of music in it, all come under copyright protection.

In United States, computer programs are patented and therefore, e-sports algorithms are given patent protection there.

PERFORMANCE RIGHTS

The protection of performance rights is more of a question mark than a right as of now. Performance rights refer to the rights of a performer prohibiting others from broadcasting their performance without their consent. The Copyright Act provides this protection but gamers are nowhere mentioned. It can be compared to a game of chess where each player has strategic moves which are technically his intellectual property but not under the scope of protection to prohibit others from using that move.

PRODUCING COPIES OF THE GAME

Furthermore, right of producing copies is exclusive to the developer of the game. The question to answer here is whether it will be copyright infringement if tournament organisers produce copies of the game and the answer is yes.Developers are the only ones with broadcasting and reproducing rights and organisers cannot even hold a commercial tournament without the consent of the developer. The athletes are more dependent on these owners for their very limited earning.

TRADEMARK PROTECTION FOR E-SPORTS

A trademark distinguishes the goods and services of one business from another. The objective of a trademark protection is to prevent unfair competition and the reputation of one business to be affected by the other. In the case of e-sports, the name of the game, its logo, and it slogan is under trademark protection. It is an exclusive right which prohibits others from using the same name or design.

PATENT PROTECTION FOR E-SPORTS

A patent protects inventions which are novel, have an inventive step, and are capable of industrial application. Here, patents will protect the technology that is applied in games, like joysticks or any online architecture where the game runs.

COMPETITION LAW AND IPR

Intellectual Property and Competition law are closely related. With disputes arising in IP protection, it directly impacts the competition in the market, especially where one company has a dominant position in the market. Therefore the price of the games or their licenses need to be regulated. It has to be ensured that one developer does not stop other competitors from entering into the market, or they should not change their prices to gain market share or sell a substitute game. Therefore, the agreements that the consumers or the athletes agree to should not be arbitrary. The developers should be prohibited from exploiting their IP rights for an unfair competition.

CONCLUSION

Intellectual property protection is a controlling legislation which answers the question of 'what can be shared and what cannot'. With the competitive-sports industry realising its potential, it has become necessary to protect the rights of consumers. With traditional physical sports like football, hockey, etc. the ownership of the game is not an issue. But the online game or the e-sport is owned by a developer who has the protection of copyright to prohibit others from using his work. The sports industry, as a whole, has become a big corporation with one goal of making profits.

The commercialisation of the industry has increased the need for protecting intellectual property rights associated with it including, trademarks, copyrights, advertising rights, etc. There is clearly a need for a specific legislation to regulate the still developing world of e-sports, it will take a long time in India to actually have one. This should not, in any way, ignore the fact that the current intellectual property laws, while protecting developers, must also provide for the rights of the e-sports players.

The first step would be to give clear grounds of termination in the limited license to the players as well as the organisers if any tournament is cancelled. Another way to help the players is compulsory licensing of copyright which will allow consumers or professional players to make a few modifications in the game. Compulsory licenses promote a fair chance for all parties involved by rewarding the owner, and giving access to the player. It would also promote fair competition among the developers and tournament organisers by providing multiple choices. For compulsory licenses to be a successful alternative solution, there should be reasonable prices for royalty as the in-game purchases are also a big revenue point for the owner of the game.

Intellectual property and competition laws are closely related. With disputes arising in IP protection, it directly impacts the competition in the market, especially where one company has a dominant position in the market. Therefore, the price of the games or their licences need to be regulated. It has to be ensured that one developer does not stop other competitors from entering into the market, or they should not change their prices to gain market share or sell a substitute game. The agreements that the consumers or the athletes agree to should not be arbitrary.

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