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Scott Allen
Not Playing Around: 8 Lawsuits Involving Video Games
by Scott Allen

Sam Keller, who played college football at Arizona State and Nebraska, recently filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that video game giant Electronic Arts and the National Collegiate Athletic Association illegally profit by using college basketball and football players’ likenesses in video games without their permission. While the games don’t use the players’ names, the uniform numbers, height, weight, home state, skin tone, and even hairstyle correspond to actual student athletes, and gamers can download rosters of the players’ names online. Here are 8 other examples of celebrities and athletes who took issue with their portrayal in video games and advertisements.

1. What if they had made him a scrawny Caucasian?

jimmy-brown
In 2008, former Cleveland Browns great Jim Brown filed a lawsuit claiming Sony and Electronic Arts used his likeness in their Madden video game without his permission. According to the New York Daily News, the Hall of Fame running back sued because the All Browns Team – a collection of the greatest players in Cleveland Browns history – features “a muscular African-American player wearing number 32.” Earlier this year, the NFL Players Association reached a $26 million settlement with its retired players after a federal jury found that the union’s licensing subsidiary had allowed Electronic Arts to use retired players’ likenesses in their games without compensation by scrambling uniform numbers and not using the players’ names.

2. Not so Dee-Lited with Sega

deelight

In 2003, ex-Dee-Lite star Kierin Kirby, better known as Lady Miss Kier, filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Sega because the main character in the popular video game Space Channel 5 bore a “striking physical similarity and likeness” to her. Kirby sought more than $750,000 in damages for misappropriation of her likeness and claimed, among other things, that the character’s name, Ulala, was a blatant rip-off of one of her signature phrases, “Ooh la la.” Kirby, who burst onto the scene with Dee-Lite in the early 90s with the hit song “Groove Is In The Heart,” had declined a $15,000 offer from Sega three years earlier for the rights to use her image in the game. Sega argued that a version of the game featuring Ulala was released in Japan between 1997 and 1999 and the creators had never heard of Dee-Lite or Lady Miss Kier. Game over. Kirby lost the suit and a later appeal, and she was ordered to pay all of Sega’s legal fees, which totaled more than $600,000. Ooh la la!

3. Baseball’s old-timers strike back

Darrel Chaney, who had more strikeouts than hits in his 11-year major league career, led a group of former major leaguers in a class-action lawsuit against nearly a dozen computer game makers in an effort to earn similar compensation to what baseball’s current players receive in exchange for the right to use their likenesses in games. Chaney’s efforts began 2 years after Don Newcombe and several of his Brooklyn Dodgers teammates filed a similar suit against Warner Communications, the makers of Hardball 5. The lawsuits were settled in 2000. Most baseball video games no longer use former players’ actual names.

4. The Romantics don’t like much about Guitar Hero

The Romantics filed a lawsuit against Activision Inc., the maker of Guitar Hero, claiming that the video game infringed on their rights by featuring a recording similar to the band’s best known song, the 1980 hit “What I Like About You.” While Activision obtained permission to use a cover version of the song, the Romantics claimed the imitation was too much like their original recording. A federal judge in Detroit ruled against the band, which was seeking unspecified damages and an injunction on the game’s sale, indicating that Activision had acted in good faith by securing the rights to record a cover version.

5. Who thought this was a good idea?

bmx-xxxProfessional dirt-bike racer Dave Mirra filed a lawsuit against video game maker Acclaim in 2003, seeking over $20 million in damages for using his name and likeness in a game that allegedly damaged his image. According to the suit, Mirra had originally agreed to be associated with the game, BMX XXX, which the company described to him as a mature game in the vein of such films as “Airplane!” The end product, however, was much racier. Mirra alleged in the suit: “Acclaim changed the concept of the game to become more sexually explicit and pornographic, ultimately settling on nudity as a major selling point.” The lawsuit was eventually settled amicably, with no monetary damages paid by either side.

6. Double trouble

olsens

In 2004, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen sued Acclaim for close to $500,000, citing breach of contract after cancellation of the Mary-Kate and Ashley in ACTION! video game. Acclaim was ordered to pay nearly $178,000 as part of a settlement and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy soon after.

7. Suit the rapper

shoot-rapper

Curtis Jackson, better known as 50 Cent, filed suit against Traffix Inc. for $1 million for using his image in an online advertisement without his permission. As part of the Flash-based game “Shoot the Rapper,” users were prompted to shoot 50 Cent as he walked along a red carpet with a click of the mouse. A successful shot redirected the user to a Traffix client’s Web site. “It looks like him, and there’s no doubt the character is intended to be him,” 50 Cent’s lawyer said.

8. Finish him – in court

Ho Sung Pak sued Midway, Acclaim, Sega, and Nintendo – the makers of Mortal Kombat – for using his likeness and name without his consent. Pak, whose name appears in the credits, claimed the character Liu Kang was based on him. Pak was paid $2,000 to lend his support to the arcade version of the game produced by Midway and two other companies, but sought compensatory damages for the alleged misappropriation of his name and likeness in the wildly popular at-home version. The case settled on the eve of a jury trial. Pak, who is a member of the Black Belt Hall of Fame, played Raphael in the second and third Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies.

Bonus: I’d like to buy a foul

vanna-robot
This lawsuit involves an electronics giant, not a video game, so we’re including it as a bonus. In 1993, Wheel of Fortune’s Vanna White filed a lawsuit against Samsung for misappropriating her identity in a print advertisement. The ad, for a VCR, featured a robot in a blond wig and evening gown turning letters with a caption that read, “Longest running game show. 2012 A.D.” White won the lawsuit, which was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The court ruled in favor of White’s claim of a right to her property of publicity.

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