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Report on the ABA Forum on the Entertainment and Sports Industries –Part I: “From Music, Film and Art to Motorcycles and Other Sports: Hot Issues and Disputes in Entertainment, Art and Sports Licensing Deals”

By Monica Pa

This panel was held on Friday, August 6, 2010 at the InterContinental Hotel in San Francisco.

The panel included Richard J. Idell, Idell & Seitel; Jessica Darraby, the Art Law Firm; Samuel Lew, Feldman Gale PA; Jann Moorhead; and Rob Rieders, Pixar Animations Studios. This blog entry only discusses Rob’s presentation, which I thought raised excellent points about entertainment licensing by a content creator.

Pixar has been involved in numerous award-winning animated movies, including Toy Story, Up, Cars, etc. Rob’s presentation provided practice tips for how to negotiate and work with content owners, licensors, creative executives and the marketing team in setting forth the parameters of the licensing agreements and the scope of permissible use for creative works.

He used the movie Toy Story as an example of various entertainment licensing issues that come up in a movie. Toy Story licensed a tremendous number of characters (e.g., Ken and Barbie, Mr. Potato Head, Slinky the dog, lots of Fisher Price toys, etc.). When you are licensing a character, you want to consider all the artistic interpretations of the licensed elements and potential changes to the brand identity from these interpretations. For example, if you are licensing Mr. Potato Head, you want to think about what happens when a toy becomes a “living character,” animated with a voice, personality and 3D design. Similarly, if you are licensing a historic character like Kasper the Ghost, and the licensee intends to update this character, are these updates going to be appropriate for the character? Will it be positive for the brand and/or the overall line of business?

For example the movie Cars animated several iconic cars and gave them distinct personalities. Pixar depicted the 1960 VW Bus as an old hippie van narrated by George Carlin. The 1959 Chevrolet Impala was updated as a snazzy slick Hispanic car narrated by Cheech Marin. In Toy Story, Barbie and Ken were primary characters. Pixar was unsure whether Mattel would be comfortable with the depiction of Ken as a fashionista metrosexual. Barbie, on the other hand, was depicted as very intelligent, which Mattel liked. Similarly, Mr. Potato Head is an important brand for Hasbro (it's the company's Mickey Mouse), so it is protective of this character. In Toy Story, Mr. Potato Head was depicted as a folksy character narrated by Don Rickles. Pixar queried whether Hasbro would be comfortable with the fact that Mrs. Potato Head was depicted walking around for half the film without an eye. Notably, Mr. Potato Head was depicted with a bowler hat and mustache, which was not original to the toy. By doing this, Pixar added to the Mr. Potato Head character, thereby creating new intellectual property that Pixar now has some ownership interest.

In entertainment licensing, you want to continually consult with the licensor along the way. Even if you have a broad license, you do not want to have the licensor unhappy with the resulting product or be surprised about how its character was depicted. Once a film is made (which can take up to five years), it is extremely difficult and expensive to extract elements from the animated work if a dispute arises.

In licensing a character or toy, you’ll also want to consider unexpected uses of the licensed element. For example, Pixar created a Mr. Tortilla Head (which took Mr. Potato Head’s features and put it on a tortilla because at one point the toys needed to slide under a closed door.) Make sure the license provides for whether the elements of the intellectual property can be disembodied and whether it governs the “whole” work. Remember, people love mash ups.
In seeking to obtain a license for a character, as a preliminary consideration, analyze whether a license is even obtainable given the intended use. For example, in the current Toy Story, the nemesis was an evil teddy bear. There is no famous teddy bear brand (such as Paddington Bear) that would be willing to license their character for this use because this would be so detrimental to the brand. Accordingly, Pixar created its own teddy bear character that is pink, bitter and walks with a cane. Indeed, it’s sometimes better to create your own content rather than operate under a restrictive license where the licensor is uncomfortable with the intended use.

However, if you are going to license a character as a nemesis, e.g., a “Bad Guy”, make sure you fully and accurately disclose your intended use because, again, you do not want the licensor to be unhappy later. Put a full disclosure in writing setting forth the intended use (e.g., this character is going to be depicted as a homicidal maniac). Regardless of how the character is going to be used, the licensee should never agree to a “positive light” provision, which provides that the character will be portrayed positively; at most, agree to a “neutral light” provision. Also pay attention to the precatory language in the agreement, and be careful about boiler-plate provisions, including provisions for injunctive relief, venue, choice of law, and publicity rights the content creator should control the publicity of the film and not the licensor).
A content creator also wants to avoid giving the licensor script approval or final product approval. This, however, depends on the bargaining power of the respective parties, and on the reputation of the content creator. Pixar does not give story approvals, but they have good relationships with their licensors. They work closely with those companies to keep people on board all along the way. With smaller content creators, a licensor may want to be more careful and protective of their brand. In these instances, the licensor may want to push for some level of script approval.

Rob pointed out the challenges that arise when the creative team insists that an element is a “must have.” This results in the loss of negotiation leverage (e.g., the licensor know that you need them more than they need you). If the content creator has an unequal bargaining position (desperation can be obvious), the resulting license will not only be more expensive, it can be limited in the scope of granted rights, and other provisions (e.g., the representations and warranties, indemnification) may be compromised. The in-house lawyer should be willing to push back on the creative team. Try exploring available alternatives with them, such as creating a new character instead.

Another practice point is to make sure that the in-house lawyer is consistent with licensing methods and practices. If the company has a best practices policy, these should be consistently followed. For example, if Pixar is licensing several characters from various toy companies, all of the companies should be treated fairly and subject to similar deal terms. For example, do not give one company script approval when no other company go this and/or there is a company practice against this. Try not to make exceptions, even if the licensed elements is a “must have.” Bear in mind that the licensing community is tight knit and people talk.
In drafting, make sure the license contains contingent obligations. Obligations for payment and screen credit should be contingent on actual use. Without this provision, if the product or character does not actually appear in the film, there is a chance that the content creator will still need to pay the licensor.

License agreements should also contain certain non-contingent obligations, such as a strict confidentiality clause. If the creator discloses preliminary drafts of its film and marketing campaign with its licensing partners, this needs to remain confidential. Another non-contingent obligation should be that the creator reserves the right to use or not use any licensed element. The content creator wants to make sure that no one is shoving their product into a film or marketing campaign.

Finally, Rob pointed out that, in entering into a license, the content creator should assume success; meaning, the film is going to have sequels, toys, books, games, theme parks, etc. For example, there is a “Cars Land” theme park now based on the Cars movie. Try not to give away toy merchandising rights, book rights, and other derivative rights. The creative team may not think this far ahead and, if this is a “must have,” may be willing to forgo these rights in order to get the deal done.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 15, 2010 8:38 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Report on the ABA Forum on the Entertainment and Sports Industries –Part II: “Clash of the Titans: Viacom v. YouTube – Will Copyright Law Undo Goggle’s Internet Juggernaut?”.

The next post in this blog is CREATIVE TIME--BRINGING CUTTING EDGE ART TO THE PUBLIC.

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