In the past 24 hours, Fortnite was offline. No one could play, stream, compete, or access their account. This was part of an in-game “event” known as the Fortnite Blackout or The End. Can Epic Games do that? What rights do you even have as a player, team owner, or competitor? It all comes down to the End User License Agreement (EULA) – so leave it to a gaming lawyer to use Fortnite to teach you about the critical role of licensing in the digital age!
By way of background, Fortnite is certainly one of the most –if not the most popular video game in the world. The game, which is available as free download on modern consoles, PCs, and even iPhones, is a hit with kids, teens, adults, professional athletes, celebrities, and even Prince Harry (the Duke of Sussex) who got so addicted that he called for the game to be banned in Britain. True story. It has also evolved into an international eSport phenomenon, with this year’s World Cup Finals winner taking home a cool $3 million check. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of professional gamers and streamers across the world that make this game their career. Epic Games, the game’s owner and creator, is estimated to have earned between $2.4 and $3 billion from the game in 2018 alone. This is particularly impressive given that the game is free to download and play, with all of the revenue coming from in-game cosmetic content, such as different character outfits.
Now imagine if one day all of that was suddenly gone. Epic shuts down the servers and Fortnite no longer exists. Well, this actually happened (at least for about 24 hours)–during the Fortnite Blackout or The End event. The hundreds of hours you spent playing, earning points, and ranking? Gone. Did you spend all of your birthday money on new outfits so you could look like a James Bond villain in the game? Gone. Even worse if you are a professional gamer who made Fortnite a career. Or a team owner who invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into building the next world champion. What can you do? Who can you sue?
The simple answer is NOTHING and NO ONE. Because you have to understand licensing. And the fact that the traditional concepts of ownership–i.e. I pay money for something therefore I own it–do not transfer to the digital world. Did you read the EULA that you have to accept before logging into Fortnite? I didn’t think so. Yet it contains important rights and obligations–especially if you play professionally. The reality is, by playing Fortnite and even paying real money to “buy” in-game characters, weapons, etc., you own nothing. In simple terms, Epic Games grants you a license to play the game at its sole discretion, but Epic Games owns and controls everything and anything within the game, even the content that you paid real money for.
The Fortnite EULA is a license, which is a right to do something, or access something. Think of it like a ticket to go see a football game or a concert, but in this case it is a ticket that gives you access to a video game. In legal terms, what distinguishes a license is the fact that it is a “revocable” right, meaning the licensor (the owner of the license) can terminate the licensee’s rights of access at any time, subject to any conditions of the license. So what terms do you agree to when playing Fortnite?
Epic grants you a “personal, non-exclusive…limited right and license to install and use the Software…for you personal entertainment use.” Also, ” The Software is licensed, not sold, to you under the License. The License does not grant you any title or ownership in the Software. ” Ok, but can Epic just shut down the game? Yes–read on–” You also acknowledge that any character data, game progress, game customization or other data related to your use of the Software or Services may cease to be available to you at any time without notice from Epic….”
What about all the real money you paid for skins, custom characters, etc.? You get that back, right? Nope. Read on–” Epic, in its sole discretion, has the absolute right to manage, modify, substitute, replace, suspend, cancel or eliminate Game Currency or Content, including your ability to access or use Game Currency or Content, without notice or liability to you.” Meaning, you do not really own any “game currency” or the “content” that you bought–in fact, all you are acquiring when you are “purchasing in-game content” is another license to use the currency or the content that you purchase with the currency for as long as Epic wants.
It’s not really so confusing. When you downloaded and played Fortnite, you agreed that Epic owns everything and you own nothing. If you paid any money to Epic for skin or custom parachute, Epic gave you a license to use that particular skin or parachute. You paid for the “experience”–not a tangible item itself. That’s licensing.
Of course, this reality creates a whole host of follow-up questions. What happens to content I create using Fortnite’s creative mode? Does Epic own that too? Short answer is YES. What about streamers who make a living playing Fortnite? Professional gamers? Team owners? Fortnite World Cup sponsors? There is no easy answer there, as each situation is fact-specific and depends on the various terms of the license agreements, any sponsorship agreements, intellectual property law, etc.
The Fortnite Blackout was a lesson in “ownership” in the digital age. Traditional concepts of ownership do not apply or transfer to to the digital realm. Music, video, games, and even photos that you upload or post on social media–are not “yours” in the traditional sense. Rather, there is an increasingly complex web of rights that becomes even more complex when gaming is a business.
So, like any business owner, if you are investing time, money, and effort into a game–with the idea to play professionally, make streaming revenue, or to otherwise make it in the gaming business–engage and consult with an eSports attorney. Understanding your rights and obligations will help you craft an effective business strategy going forward, and plan for contingencies and er…singularities.