Who Owns Madden's Virtual Playbook?

They have all the secrets to make you a better Madden gamer. "SUPERIOR KNOWLEDGE OVER THE COMPETITION," says the website. "DOMINATE ONLINE."

It sounds like a huckster pitch from any of the numerous, unofficial, strategy sites dedicated, for the last decade, to selling tips and secrets to winning in Madden's gladiatorial multiplayer community. But it's not. It's on the front of Prima Games' Madden site. The well known strategy guide imprint of Random House might not be the first to do it. But they have a license to do it. And if there's anything EA Sports understands, it's the value of a Madden exclusive license.

So, to Madden's tips and hardcore multiplayer community, there were few dots to connect when it was learned earlier this week that four unaffiliated strategy sites had gotten letters from Electronic Arts' legal division, concerning potential copyright and trademark violations. That had to be the work of Prima complaining to EA, they surmised.

Prima, a name gamers recognize on printed guides ranging from Grand Theft Auto IV to LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, is expanding its online offerings for Madden in a way that mirrors what many tips sites have done for the better part of a decade. Video-supported online playbooks are available for pre-order now. So are subscriptions to a weekly video show breaking down trends and roster changes. Coming soon, one-on-one seminars with two noted experts.

This is the kind of stuff seen for the past several years on sites with Madden in their URLs, like Madden Tips. Madden Guides. Madden Gurus and, for a time, "The Madden Lab," now wisely renamed to "The Gamers Lab," undoubtedly to avoid the kind of trademark infringement that got the others noticed.

Well, one site is essentially under Prima management now. And Madden Guides already is down. A tour of its Google cache shows the site was posting content up through at least Aug. 5, and taking orders for Madden NFL 11 products like "Kobra's Patriots Offensive Video Guide." ("Another reason that Kobra's Video Guides have been successful is that his voice is mature and doesn't come off sounding like some kid who is still in high school," says the guide's fact sheet).

All this sent a tremor through the Madden strategy community, which is itself divided in its opinion of the reputability of some of practices, particularly selling information about glitches and exploits that can't be overcome. Nonetheless, they seemed united against an existential threat not only to their enthusiasm, but also a side business, if not a livelihood, for some.

"Me and my partner are both full-time on the site this season," said David Light of GoMadden, a combined editorial-and-tips site that was not targeted for any takedown, but nonetheless editorialized against the practice earlier this week. "Other than odd online jobs, this is how we're expecting to make a living this year."

Light calls himself "a strong advocate of civil liberties," and views a lot of the content on the Madden tips sites to be protected by principles of fair use. But he's not an absolutist on the subject, either. "There is no question that a strong case could be made by EA that any strategy content sold that contains glitches or exploits can be damaging to their online multiplayer products," he says, "and for that reason one might expect those instances would be excluded from protection by Fair Use."

EA Sports likewise, doesn't take an absolutist line against unaffiliated tips sites. It said this week's takedown actions were initiated because of egregious copyright infringements, such as the use of Madden cover art, typography and logos and other symbology implying any official endorsement.

"We fully support our community and the creation and sharing of content that will help fans enjoy the Madden NFL titles," the publisher said to Kotaku in an official statement. "There were a few isolated issues with websites infringing on copyrighted material for commercial use, which has been addressed."

Who Owns Madden's Virtual Playbook?

The fact that numerous URLs with "Madden" in their names are still up and running, and have been known to EA Sports for several years, should suggest an unofficial boundary: The game's name is fine. Using official symbols isn't.

Few other than EA Sports were willing to talk about this, given the potential for bad publicity, or attracting attention and a takedown notice. Messages left for Prima Games representatives were not returned. Efforts to contact three site owners who received notices also went unreturned.

The only official statement I can find from a site owner came from Bert Ingley, whose VG Sports/Madden Tips site has been a leader in online Madden and NCAA Football strategy for nearly a decade. Ingley did not return an email from Kotaku, but in this forum message to the Madden Tips community, he indicated that he and Prima had come to an agreement that allows his site to continue.

"I contacted Prima Games and arranged for them to acquire rights to the MaddenTips.com domain name, site content and forums," Ingley wrote. "It only seems right that the officially licensed strategy provider should call the last decade's #1 internet Madden strategy site home." He said the site and its forums will live on, and he will be working with Prima in the promotion and direction of its Madden strategy products while continuing to administer MaddenTips."

The community's assumption seems to be that this is all Prima's doing, and that would make a lot of sense, especially at this time of year. Madden's annual release is as carefully planned—and expensive—as a royal wedding. It is sports' gaming's state dinner. There's no way EA Sports wants to take broad action against a very vocal base two weeks before the game's release, especially the release of a game being marketed aggressively to the same hardcore segment.

But EA is the trademark holder (and direct NFL licensee), not Prima, leaving it to EA to do the dirty work. My understanding is that Prima was mostly concerned these unofficial tips sites were getting full builds of the game, from EA Sports, prior to release, the same type of access Prima's official guide writers get.

These sites aren't, in fact. The "products" available now are based off the game's demo, which features only two teams, the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers. The rest are speculative and will arrive sometime after the game streets on Aug. 29, although assuredly these site owners bought up an EA Sports Season Ticket to get Madden early and a three-day head start on their work.

This is a touchy issue also because of news last month that the U.S. Senate was considering a bill providing for criminal penalties for "unauthorized performances" of copyrighted content, under a definition that would seem to cover how-to videos of games on YouTube. And Madden is most conspicuous among sports titles because, as a sport played out in set pieces, American football lends itself most to a written, repeatable strategic breakdown like chess, or tabletop war games.

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The Madden controversy seems resolved for the time being. For those looking for a leg up on a particularly vexing defense, or looking for a particularly vexing defense of their own to throw at an opponent, there are plenty of options in the online marketplace.

Still, as Prima consolidates its online position here, and takes other strategy products it publishes into the online space—particularly in the fighting genre—those who supply and especially sell strategy or walkthroughs online might want to take notice before they get one via certified mail. Only it won't be on Prima letterhead.

Who Owns Madden's Virtual Playbook?
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.