Thursday, July 20, 2006

Big-Name Players Sue World Poker Tour [WPT] Over Likeness Rights, Access

From the "This one's been brewing for a while" category came the announcement on Wednesday that seven major poker stars had filed an antitrust WPT Enterprises, Inc., alleging that "the casinos have unlawfully conspired to eliminate competition for the services and intellectual property rights of top, high stakes professional poker players."

The seven players --- Chris Ferguson, Andrew Bloch, Annie Duke, Phil Gordon, Joseph Hachem, Howard Lederer, and Greg Raymer --- are at the forefront of a wave of disgruntled players battling the WPT over what they view as an overly aggressive rights release. As the release announcing the lawsuit continued: "In particular, the Complaint alleges that the casinos have agreed with WPTE that they will not host any non-WPT televised poker tournaments. The Complaint also alleges that WPTE and the casinos have conspired to fix the price and other terms and conditions under which Plaintiffs and other professional poker players are forced to give up their valuable services and intellectual property rights in order to participate in WPT tournaments."

Basically, the players in the suit want access to the high visibility that each televised WPT final table brings, but they don't want to do so under the terms of the WPT's standard rights release, which by all accounts is more encompassing than that found in any other televised-poker enterprise. Included are allegations that the WPT is using player likenesses without compensation, and that the agreements that the WPT has signed with "tour stop" casinos, allowing no other televised events to occur on those premises, is a form of unfair restraint against these players, depriving them of the right to earn their income.

Much is made of the fact that Raymer, one of the seven players, was a practicing patent attorney before capturing the 2004 WSOP Main Event title; he's therefore presumed to have a wee bit more than average knowledge on these matters.

All that said, I just don't see this one succeeding. My heart is with the players, who continue to not get any portion of the lucrative monies generated by televised poker, except whatever they can reap on their own through secondary endorsement deals. But on an intellectual level, the players here are the rough equivalent of Maurice Clarett in his battles against the NFL, which ended up not going anywhere that pleased Clarett, who now plays football up in Canuckland. As with the NFL, the WPT and the casinos who signed those deals just aren't beholden to the players in advance; the WPT and the casinos are business enterprises who can cut their own deals as they see fit, just as the players are free to participate --- or not participate --- per their own discretion.

That sucks, but that's the way it is.

The release even quotes Chris Ferguson as follows: "WPTE has stacked the deck against all poker players who wish to compete in its tournaments." (Emphasis mine.) The fact that the players wish to compete does not require the WPT to automatically change their release agreements to suit some players' demands, and that's why I believe, regrettably, that this suit will fail. It's a noble but futile gesture. That said, there's no reason that a larger groundswell of protest from more and more of the big-name players wouldn't ultimately force the WPT into reworking its agreement into a more equitable form.

Right now, though, the WPT seems to hold all the cards.

Best of luck to ya, players, but I think you're skiing uphill.

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