What’s in a Game? Promotions and Advertising on the ‘Net (Part 2 of 2)

As we mentioned in last month’s issue, sweepstakes, contests and promotions are primarily regulated by state law, although federal statutes and regulations must be considered. Jurisdiction and eligibility across borders, language, currency restrictions, licensing and export of technology, liability, billing and payment, whether a deposit to play might be construed an account for banking purposes, or whether gathering non-public, personally identifiable information about contestants may have privacy implications, are just a few of the issues that transcend the “gaming” aspects of any legal analysis.

On the U.S. federal level, although the FTC can take regulatory action and sue advertisers for deceptive or unfair acts and practices, it relies heavily on the states to regulate the industry. The FTC has, however, promulgated rules that do have significant impact on promotions. For example, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”) was enacted to protect children from marketers who collect or use personal information obtained online from under-age children without parental permission, and authorized the FTC to develop a rule that requires “verifiable parental consent.” Because contests are extremely popular for Internet marketing, online advertisers must be cognizant of COPPA if a portion of their online traffic is, or is likely to be, children under the age of 13.

To illustrate the maze of legal and regulatory issues, let’s use an example: Joe’s Airline, Widget and Screen Door Company wants to conduct a contest on the Internet in which participants are charged $2 to play successive rounds of chess, with prizes at various levels and a grand prize of a million dollars. Our promotion is really a unilateral offer to enter into a contract, subject to terms and conditions (e.g., rules) agreed upon through some manifestation of acceptance. Participants accept the offer by performing a required act—registering, paying, selecting an “I ACCEPT” link—and a binding contract is formed. Point number 1: if Joe fails to adequately disclose the rules upon which the offer is made, the promotion could be construed as an illegal lottery, rather than a contest. Point number 2: Joe better get the rules right and disclose them properly because there are cases which indicate once a participant enters (“accepts”), Joe cannot change the rules (i.e., unilaterally amend the contract). Something to think about: Could each chess game be viewed as a new contest, permitting amendments prospectively?

In general, to qualify as a contest, skill, and not chance, must determine the outcome, and chance may not determine the winner or prize amount. Most, but not all, state laws distinguish games of skill from games of chance, although states do not use a uniform standard to differentiate between the two. While some states prohibit requiring consideration to engage in a promotion where a prize is awarded, most states do not prohibit the payment of money if the promotion is a bona fide contest of skill. What constitutes skill? Good question. The decision is often a question of fact, and when the Internet is involved, evidence can be complex and technology-based, straining judges and juries. Two criminal courts in New York judging the legality of a shell game and a card game reached opposite conclusions.

A number of states have disclosure statutes which apply. Some (e.g., California) arguably apply to skill-based contests, while others do not. Many prize notification statutes were not intended to apply to skill contests, but are worded broadly to include any promotion requiring an entry fee or a purchase. Joe should also be aware that some state gambling laws do not limit their application to games of chance, but focus on whether players are asked to risk or wager something of value. In those states, a skill-based contest that involves betting or offers prizes dependent on the number of entries or the amount of entry fees should be reviewed carefully against state gambling laws. Remember the three elements that constitute an illegal lottery? A prize, consideration and chance. By including an equal and alternate means of entry in which there is “no purchase necessary” to enter or win, and by avoiding a payment (i.e., consideration), Joe can introduce the element of chance in the determination of the winner and not be in violation of federal or state law.