The Madden NFL series is Electronic Arts‘ yearly “old faithful” release, a dependable franchise that each year brings out large numbers of fans looking for the latest rosters and gameplay tweaks for their virtual pigskin gaming. It is also one of the publisher’s oldest franchises, starting in 1988 with John Madden Football.
Robin Antonick, one of the top-level programmers on that game, has filed a lawsuit against EA, alleging that subsequent Madden releases incorporated design ideas from his original work, and thus he is owed almost two decades worth of unpaid royalties. A California District Court filing (via Gamasutra) states that the use of the initial game’s concepts — including 11-player sides, a 3D rendering of the playing field and instant replay features — in future releases entitles Atonick to 1.5 percent of any “derivative works,” per his 1986 contract with the company.
EA has maintained the stance that those games in the franchise that were released after John Madden Football didn’t incorporate Antonick’s design ideas. The court document alleges that he was told Park Place Productions, the follow-up game’s developer, was charged with creating more of an arcade-like experience.
Antonick argues that Park Place worked closely with Richard Hilleman, a collaborator on the original John Madden Football and EA’s current chief creative officer. His intimate knowledge of the first game’s code couldn’t help but inform the work he did subsequently with Park Place, the lawsuit contends. EA founder Trip Hawkins and EA executive Bing Gordon are also named, due to their “extensive access to and knowledge of Antonick’s code, design documents and other intellectual property,” all of which were allegedly used during the development of the follow-up release.
The lawsuit also adds additional context in calling out the video game publisher for its general business practices with regards to IP rights. “Electronic Arts’ cavalier treatment of Antonick’s intellectual property and contractual rights is symptomatic of a corporate culture that has long taken a ‘so sue me’ approach to the use of third party intellectual property that it does not own and generally devalues the importance of intellectual property,” the court document reads.
It’s a sticky situation, no question. It seems, from a legal layman’s perspective at any rate, that both sides have a case to make here. This will all ultimately come down to what actually qualifies as a “derivative work” built off of Antonick’s original ideas. There is no question that subsequent games in the series incorporated ideas like instant replay features and a 3D perspective of the playing field, so the judge will be left to decide in the end on whether or not those innovations actually belong to Antonick.