This is an interesting dispute involving board game publishing rights and exclusive trademark licensing.
The Complaint (below) references a contract by which the plaintiff, Stronghold Games, would exclusively publish a board game called “Great Western Trail” from August 3, 2016 to December 31, 2018. At that time, the game was owned by a German company called eggertspiele. The Complaint alleges that one of the obligations eggertspiele agreed to in the contract was it “will not during the term grant to any other person, firm or company any rights that would derogate from the grant made” in its contract with Stronghold Games.
Stronghold first released Great Western Trail in the U.S. in November 2016. It was very popular and quickly sold out. However, while seeking permission for a second print run of the game in June 2017, Stronghold learned that all assets of eggertspiele had been purchased by Plan B Games, the defendant.
Plan B Games asserted that it had no contract with Stronghold and it did not grant reprint rights to Stronghold. Subsequently, in January 2018, Plan B Games released its own version of Great Western Trail, seemingly identical but removing Stronghold’s logo from the packaging.
I think this paragraph from the Complaint nicely sums up why Stronghold is unhappy with the current state of affairs: “Plan B was well aware of the pent-up demand for the Stronghold Version of this game in 2017, and the introduction of the nearly identical Plan B Version in early 2018 to satisfy the pent-up demand for the Stronghold Version improperly traded on Stronghold’s goodwill and has led to consumer confusion.”
Unfortunately, while the Complaint references the initial contract between Stronghold and eggertspiele granting publication rights, it didn’t include a copy of the contract for review. Although the contract apparently included language about minimum duration and exclusivity, it’s unclear whether the contract granted any property interest in the Great Western Trail trademark to Stronghold.
As general information, license agreements can give licensees standing to sue for infringement, provided that they grant an exclusive license and a property interest in the trademark. A trademark licensee’s proper use of a mark benefits the trademark owner, not the licensee. This allows trademark owners to rely on use by controlled licensees to prove continuing use of a trademark. Section 5 of the Lanham Act explicitly recognizes the acquisition of trademark rights by a licensor through first use of the mark by a controlled licensee.
However, in this situation, Stronghold appears to assert its own claim to property rights in the GREAT WESTERN TRAIL trademark distinct from the licensor, based on its own exclusive marketing efforts in the United States.
I look forward to reading the Answer, which hopefully will include the original contract. Stay tuned for updates.
UPDATE: This lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice on January 30, 2020.
Indie Game Studios, LLC v. Plan B Games, Inc et al.
Court Case Number: 1:19-cv-1492
File Date: Monday, April 15, 2019
Plaintiff: Indie Game Studios, LLC d/b/a Stronghold Games LLC
Plaintiff Counsel: Patrick J. Olmstead, Jr., John Bradshaw
Defendant: Plan B Games, Inc., Plan B Games Europe GMBH
Cause: Federal Unfair Competition, False Designation of Origin, Indiana Trademark Infringement, Common Law Unfair Competition, Conspiracy
Court: Southern District of Indiana
Judge: Sarah Evans Barker
Referred To: Mark J. Dinsmore