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Tuesday, May 08, 2007
WAKA v. DCKickball: A Claim Worth Kicking Aside?
In March 2006, I blogged about WAKA LLC v. DCKickball et al. (E.D. Va. May 30, 2006), a federal lawsuit brought by the founders of the World Adult Kickball Association ("WAKA") that asks for $356,000 in damages from rival DCKickball. WAKA's basic claim is that DCkickball infringed upon WAKA's copyright by engaging in "unauthorized use" of two of WAKA's kickball rules. Before evaluating the claim--which remains without a trial date--let's first discuss the parties.
WAKA, which was founded in 1998, is the largest sanctioning body for adult kickball in the United States. It features tens of thousands of members and teams across 23 states and in India. It has also been credited with "the popularization of the children's game as a recreational and social activity among adults."
In contrast, the upstart DCKickball started just a couple of years ago. While growing in popularity, it features several hundred players, all of whom play in Washington D.C.
Keep in mind an obvious point about adult kickball: players in these leagues are not professional athletes; they pay a registration fee to participate in a recreational sport. Along those lines, the main purpose of these leagues--which are co-ed and primarily feature persons in their 20s and early 30s--is a social one. DCKickball has many photos of off-field social events, such as the one to the right, evidencing this point and it expressly notes it in its Q/A:
So if it is just a bunch 20-somethings having fun playing kickball and hanging out at parties, why would their leagues sue each other?
WAKA claims that it enjoys copyright protection in its game rules and that DCKickball stole two of those rules: 1) the "clearly unique requirement that there be 4 men AND 4 women at a minimum to play" and 2) a 21-year old age floor for play. WAKA now seeks $356,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. WAKA bases its claims on the originality of its league and rules: while the four men who started WAKA acknowledge that they did not invent kickball, they assert that they were the first to start "social adult kickball" and to come up with its rules.
M.S. Enkoji of the Sacramento Bee just published an excellent article on the growing popularity of kickball, and she includes discussion of this lawsuit. Along with a number of other persons, I was interviewed by Enkoji, and I discuss the lawsuit. Here is the legal discussion found in Enkoji's piece:
But the very uncomplicated game of kicking a big red ball and rounding the bases -- think softball without the bats -- has become a federal case. WAKA has sued another kickball league, DCKickball, in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., claiming "copyright infringement." WAKA is claiming that when former members broke off to form the second league, they stole WAKA's unique rules. Neither side will talk about the lawsuit.So while WAKA can likely establish that it enjoys copyright protection in how it expresses a rule, it is very unlikely that it can establish ownership in the mechanics of that rule. John Marshall law professor William Ford, who blogs on Empirical Legal Studies, similarly noted this in response to my post last year:
You are free to copy the method of play, but you need to express it in your own words (or in words in the public domain) . . . The protection for the wording of rules has limits, however. When there are only a limited number of ways to express a rule, which would seem to apply in this kickball case, others should be free to copy the rule's wording under copyright's "merger" doctrine . . . WAKA's claim sounds very weak. It seems WAKA thinks it can monopolize a game mechanic or a short, one-sentence statement of a game mechanic.Aside from its intellectual property dynamics, this lawsuit can also be viewed from a competition/antitrust perspective. In that vein, one might argue that it is an attempt by the much better financed WAKA to raise DCKickball's expenses and put it - WAKA's major competitor in DC - out of business. Whether that is true or not is unclear.
We'll keep you updated on WAKA LLC v. DCKickball et al. For a thoughtful response from a DCKickball player, see Martin Austermuhle's post on DCist.