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December 17, 2010 7:15 PM

The Combat Sports Chronicles: UFC IP Suits and NFL Labor Talks

Posted by Brian Baxter

When we spoke with Ultimate Fighting Championship general counsel Lawrence Epstein in October, he told us that he worked in a "legally intensive business" because the mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion company was obsessed with protecting its intellectual property.

Enter Ubisoft Entertainment, one of the world's largest video game companies. In November the French company stepped into the octagon with its latest offering--Fighters Uncaged, which allows players to become the "ultimate fighting weapon" in a world of underground street fighting.

Ubisoft now faces a lawsuit filed by UFC over the use of the words "ultimate fighting," reports Sherdog.com, a news Web site covering all things UFC and MMA. UFC is claiming trademark infringement in the suit filed last week in U.S. district court in Las Vegas. (A contributor to the Sherdog story was Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe senior associate J.R. Riddell, who serves as a legal analyst for the site.)

UFC is represented by Lewis and Roca, where Epstein remains of counsel. Sherdog reports that UFC wants Ubisoft to remove "ultimate fighting weapon" slogan from the game and destroy all other games bearing the offending material, according to the UFC's 12-page complaint.

The sports law landscape has been crowded lately with lots of news. Here are some highlights:

FOURTH AND LONG FOR NFL LABOR NEGOTIATIONS

The long-running labor standoff between the NFL and its lawyers from Proskauer Rose and Covington & Burling against the NFLPA and its leader, Patton Boggs alum DeMaurice Smith, could finally be coming to an end, if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has his way. The Associated Press reports that Goodell thinks a new collective bargaining agreement could be reached before the Super Bowl.

The success of those negotiations appears to hinge on the union agreeing to expand the regular season from the current 16 games to an 18-game slate, NFL general counsel and lead league negotiator Jeffrey Pash told The AP last week. (Pash is a former Covington partner.)

The extra games have players crying foul about safety, an issue that's received more publicity in recent years due to the plight of many former retired players. A group of those former players, unhappy with a nearly $30 million settlement with the union last year, received a big setback in a malpractice case this week against their former lawyers at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and McKool Smith. (Click here for The Am Law Daily story on Manatt's win.)

This month an NFL committee criticized the league's licensing and sponsorship arrangement with helmet maker Riddell, stating that there should be no official helmet when it comes to player safety. In September The Am Law Daily reported on the Chapter 11 filing of Schutt Sports, after the Litchfield, Ill.-based helmet maker lost a $30 million patent infringement case to Riddell. The bankruptcy filing revealed the litigation fees of firms like Perkins Coie and Kirkland & Ellis, among others.

AS CLUB QUESTIONS SWIRL, NBA'S STERN SEEKS TO SINK UNION IN CBA TALKS

The NBA also is dealing with its share of labor issues. This week, league commissioner and former Proskauer partner David Stern called a potential move to decertify the league's players union a "nuclear option," as The AP reported. The union maintains it won't budge on a hard salary cap, increasing the probability of a lockout by owners.

Then there's the fate of the New Orleans Hornets franchise, which the league took over earlier this month and placed in the hands of former Hogan & Hartson partner Jac Sperling, a New Orleans native who chatted down with his hometown newspaper to reiterate his desire to keep the team in the Crescent City.

One club whose ownership isn't in question--thanks to two Am Law 100 firms--but whose name remains up in the air, are the New Jersey Nets. The team intends to relocate to Brooklyn in 2012, leading many to believe a name change could be in the offing.

This week NetsDaily reported that two Pepper Hamilton lawyers have submitted trademark applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for the name "Brooklyn New Yorkers." The Nets claim the applications aren't theirs and the Pepper Hamilton lawyers aren't talking.

In Kentucky, the Louisville Metro Council voted this week to pay an additional $29,000 to local lawyer J. Bruce Miller in the city's quest to bring an NBA team to town, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. The expenditure will be on top of the $60,000 already paid to Miller, the Courier-Journal reports. The move for an NBA team by the largest city in the Bluegrass State, known for its love of NCAA basketball, has the support of at least one big-time college coach.

AROUND THE HORN

-- Donald Fehr, the longtime leader of the Major League Baseball Players Assocation, has been elected the new executive director of the NHL players union. Fehr, 62, had been serving as an unpaid consultant to the NHLPA for the past year while the union conducted a search for a successor to Paul Kelly, a former federal prosecutor and Am Law attorney who was fired in August 2009. Kelly settled with the NHLPA earlier this year.

-- After a six-year battle, the MLBPA has prevailed in a federal court case protesting the seizure by federal authorities in 2003 of performance-enhancing drug testing information that gave rise to the notorious "steroids list," according to The New York Times. MLBPA head Michael Weiner, the union's former general counsel, has called the ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals a "significant victory." The union prevailed after the expiration of a 90-day period following the Ninth Circuit's data privacy decision in September. (Click here and here for our previous conversations with Keker & Van Nest's Elliot Peters, lead counsel for the union, and a former Am Law Litigator of the Week.)

-- For some, baseball's steroids era can't disappear fast enough. Earlier this month, a federal judge postponed Roger Clemens's upcoming perjury trial three months until next July. The Blog of Legal Times, a sibling publication, reports that lawyers for The Rocket see a document fight on the horizon with federal prosecutors. Houston's Rusty Hardin & Associates and Cooley's Michael Attanasio are representing Clemens, who has pled not guilty.

-- The Chapter 11 case of the Texas Rangers might have wrapped up a few months ago--even if the name-calling lives on--but the legal bills had until recently remained unresolved. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that the U.S. Trustee's Office, which presided over the team's $593 million bankruptcy sale, got K&L Gates and Fort Worth bankruptcy boutique Forshey Prostok to accept slight cuts in their fee requests. (Forshey served as conflicts counsel to the Rangers, while K&L represented unsecured creditors.) Still on the hook is lead debtor's counsel Weil, Gotshal & Manges, which is resisting cuts to the nearly $5.5 million in fees and expenses the firm is seeking for its work.

-- Still spoiling from his FOIA fight with the SEC, Dallas Mavericks owner and entrepreneur Mark Cuban has a plan for overhauling the Bowl Championship Series, the much detested bowl selection system for college football, and creating a playoff format. But the BCS's current director doesn't think much of Cuban's plan, and while the BCS might be unpopular, it's highly unlikely to be deemed illegal, according to this piece by Michael McCann, a sports law professor at Vermont Law School and contributor to the Sports Law Blog.

-- With the BCS system still in place, on New Year's Day the No. 3 ranked TCU Horned Frogs will take on the No. 4 ranked Wisconsin Badgers in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Future teams playing in the 92,000-seat stadium will have Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton to thank for helping Pasadena raise $156 million from the sale of long-term bonds to renovate the Rose Bowl over a three-year period. Corporate partner David Sunkin, corporate practice cochair Lawrence Braun, and sports industry cochair Benjamin Mulcahy represented the city, along with associates Michael Leake and Michael Cato.

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