A US federal appeals court has revived a lawsuit brought by a college quarterback against EA Sports, on grounds the video game publisher used his likeness without permission in its popular NCAA Football series. Ryan Hart sued years ago on grounds that the Rutgers quarterback in NCAA Football exhibited all of his traits except for his name, and therefore constituted his actual likeness.
In 2011, Hart’s case was dismissed at the federal district court level, in a ruling that said his depiction in NCAA Football fell under EA Sports’ normal First Amendment rights of artistic expression.
Hart appealed, and decision Tuesday by a three-judge panel of the federal 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals agrees with him. “The digital Ryan Hart does what the actual Ryan Hart did while at Rutgers,” wrote Judge Joseph Greenaway, for the 2-1 majority. “He plays college football, in digital recreations of college football stadiums, filled with all the trappings of a college football game… [t]he various digitized sights and sounds in the video game do not alter or transform the appelant’s identity in a significant way.”
The reversal of the dismissal of Hart’s complaint means it goes back to district court. A similar complaint, filed by former Nebraska and Arizona State quarterback Samuel Keller, also is on appeal at the the federal level in another district. While this ruling is not binding, Keller’s complaint and appeal are basically the same as Hart’s.
Keller’s lawsuit was combined with that of Ed O’Bannon’s, the former UCLA standout who sued EA Sports over his appearance — after his college days — in a video game under all but his own name. O’Bannon’s suit seeks to become a class action and a ruling on that will take place in June. If it does become a class action — involving thousands of past and present college players — the potential damages could force the NCAA to severely alter its rules for eligibility, and even compensate athletes, as well as threaten the viability of licensed college sports video games.