Did you know that Louisiana offers a 20 percent tax credit against expenditures for video game developers and certain other interactive digital media companies that are based there? This digital media tax credit is not unique to Louisiana. In 2005, Atlanta began a program of providing tax incentives to digital media, and a number of other places have begun to attract development using tax incentives as well.
In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Michael Bay, renowned film director with cinematic blockbusters such as “The Rock,” “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor” to his credit, is quoted as saying, “I make world-class images. Why not put those images into a game?” Indeed! The new investor and co-chairman of Digital Domain, the effects studio evolving into a production studio, is making a bet on convergence—the application of digital technology to reduce costs and expand the horizons of entertainment and new media.
Remember watching those old cowboy movies and pretending you were the new sheriff in town? Did you secretly imagine you wielded an elegant light saber and might save the Galaxy with Luke Skywalker? How many times did you imagine yourself as Legolas, drawing an imaginary bow in the air to shoot an arrow and save Middle Earth?
But even in Middle Earth—where presumably there were no computers—there are digital effects. You trivia buffs will enjoy knowing that Orlando Bloom’s eyes are really brown. But as Legolas in Lord of the Rings, his eyes are blue, thanks to CGI technology. For example, watch Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and right outside the Black Gates, in a close-up, you can see his eyes are CGI blue. However, in a scene right after that, Gandalf is in the foreground and Legolas is in the near background—and Legolas’ eyes are clearly brown.
We love to be entertained, but we also love to play—play is the basis of leisure time, enjoyment, learning, and game and number theory. Play makes us active participants with interactive relationships and activities that are make-believe—in much the same way that motion pictures can move us with stunning visual sequences and transport us to places we might never see or even imagine in real life.
The computer game market represents a new—or rather a different—frontier. New motion pictures have spawned merchandising for decades—dolls, action figures, and stuffed animals, from Tarzan and Mickey Mouse to Spider-Man and G.I. Joe. In fact, product placements in motion pictures, which have gone mostly unregulated in the United States, have been used for years by advertisers to promote both reality in the movies and brand awareness to consumers. See the logo on an airplane taking off—someone paid for that. Picking up a soft drink can at the stadium with a familiar brand—someone paid for that. Watch Jack Bauer drive away or make a phone call—recognize that car or that mobile phone—someone paid for that. Do you really think Microsoft paid an estimated $6 billion for Internet advertising company aQuantive, because it does not understand the importance of convergence? Wonder why Apple Computer changed its name to “Apple”? Go to China or India or Brazil—which has more brand and name recognition, a MAC or the iPod? Which creates more buzz, the iPhone or a new operating system code named “Leopard”?
On Oct. 13, 2006, President Bush signed The Internet Gambling Prohibition and Enforcement Act into law. The Act was actually tacked onto a piece of legislation intended to tighten security for the United States’ sea ports. The Internet Gambling legislation, originally a standalone bill, was attached as an amendment to the security legislation at the last minute. Although titled “The Internet Gambling Prohibition and Enforcement Act,” it is actually not an outright ban on online gambling. It is, however, a federal ban on banking institutions knowingly transferring funds to businesses or individuals that operate, conduct or are engaged in activities that are considered illegal under U.S. law. Thus, transactions involving the movement or transference of funds to businesses that are conducting gambling operations in states and areas where gambling is prohibited is now illegal.
The law requires financial institutions to develop and implement some type of transaction security system within the next nine months, so that fund transfers to institutions on a blacklist will automatically and electronically be blocked; presumably on the list will be those online gambling operators identified by the Department of Justice. That said, the Act is not specifically limited to gaming companies—although it appears that those are its initial focus and intended target. In the wake of passage of the Act, online gambling operators—many from the U.K., Malta and jurisdictions outside the United States—have already announced their withdrawal from the U.S. marketplace. Stay tuned as enforcement efforts start to make news.
A proposed new “Truth in Video Game Rating Act” (H.R. 5912), would require the Federal Trade Commission to promulgate rules prohibiting unfair and deceptive acts or practices by video game marketers, and would require ratings to be based on video or computer game content as a whole. It would also be a violation if any producer or maker of these games hid or grossly mischaracterized the content of the game. Joysticks ready?
Florida’s Game Promotion Statute §849.094 has been modified, substantially reducing requirements for advertising games of chance in Florida—full rules are no longer required by Florida law in print advertising. Where previously a full set of full set of official rules for games of chance needed to be included in print advertisements in Florida, now advertising need only include “material terms” of the rules and regulations if the advertising includes a website address, toll-free telephone number or a mailing address where the full rules and regulations may be obtained.
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.
Marketing and promotional experts already know that with rare exceptions (e.g., the government), lotteries are illegal. An illegal lottery is a game or contest in which the outcome is determined by chance, the entry requires some form of consideration, and the winner is awarded a prize. Over the years, these three elements have been the subject of scrutiny, regulatory opinion and judicial decision. Although interpretive rules are not cast in concrete, a prize can be nominal in value; consideration can take the form of visiting a store or filling out a lengthy customer survey; and, if chance plays a material factor in determining the outcome, no amount of skill in any of the other elements of the promotion will save the day.
Marketing and promotional experts use “no purchase necessary” or “free alternate means of entry” as tools to avoid consideration—in general, promotions with a freely available alternate means to enter may be based on chance and may have a prize. Some promotions involve skill—eliminating chance. Shooting a hole in one at golf or solving a mathematical puzzle are examples of skill-based contests. Of course, the skill must be bona fide—guessing the number of beans in a jar is not a real skill, no matter how good one becomes at guessing.
Against this backdrop, advertisers, eager to get their message in front of consumers, are finding life increasingly difficult. Have you noticed increased advertising in movie theatres, outdoor signage or on uniforms of your favorite sports figures? Distribution technology and storage and recording media have given us the ability to fast-forward or avoid viewing messages that previously required you to physically leave the room or change the channel! Hmmm…so people are spending more time on the Internet—browsing, surfing—how about advertising there?
Well things seemed to be looking up for advertisers—cookies, pop-up ads, banners, above and below the fold advertising, mass commercial e-mail. Seemed like technology was coming to the rescue. But, enter their legal and technical counterparts—cookie disablers, pop-up blockers, spy-ware and ad-ware detection programs, SPAM and other filters, coupled with legislation and regulation over intrusive technologies or programs that invade privacy or transmit information without consent. Getting the message across is still getting tougher.
One approach is the increased use of “product placement”—insertion of branded products into actual programming “content.” Branded products become part of the action—someone is drinking a beverage, driving a car, using a computer—all branded. One of the most interesting developments in the world of product placement is taking place in interactive gaming. Interactive games require players to sit, often for hours, staring at a screen, paying close attention to the game. Background, backdrop, even music, contribute to making games realistic and become music to the ears of advertisers targeting a captive audience.
Can interactive, Internet-based games require a participant to pay to enter and participate—online “pay-to-play” games—and provide the winner cash or prizes? Here’s how such a game is typically structured: the participant downloads licensed programming for installation on his or her computer—the platform from which instructions and controls are transmitted. When combined with instructions and controls from team members or opposing players, the programming allows the game to be played. To enhance the gaming experience (and also to bolster the argument these are predominantly skill-based, not based on chance) many gaming platforms have sophisticated mechanisms to rate players and provide “matches” of comparable skill. Assuming games are skill-based, many (but not all) jurisdictions permit the payment of cash to play and the award of a prize. In some jurisdictions (but not all), the prize can even be derived from the number of players and the amounts paid by the participants. Check with Rimon before making any assumptions.
Regulation of Internet contests in the United States falls into four broad legal categories: (a) regulation of sweepstakes, contests and prizes; (b) regulation of unfair and deceptive trade practices; (c) regulation of gambling; and (d) consumer protection. We will turn to a more comprehensive legal review in next month’s issue, but we will tell you that if your game attracts children, you had better ensure there are mechanisms enabling you to comply with special regulations that apply. These are not limited to issues involving the age of majority and the ability of participants to legally enter into binding contracts (e.g., Alabama and Nebraska = 19; Mississippi and Puerto Rico = 21). Compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA,” not to be confused with COPA or Copacabana—anyone still reading?), considerations of parental consent, propriety of content and a host of other regulations and legal considerations, come to mind.
Stay tuned for next month’s issue to find out more about these legal issues.