World Poker Tour and Players Controversy
Dec 29, 2005  
2005 Jason Kirk  

The World Poker Tour has been broadcasting its slickly produced television show since 2002 without a hitch. That's mostly thanks to the large audiences those broadcasts garner on the Travel Channel in the United States, which have fed the explosion of the game both in casino poker rooms and in tournaments. What's not realized as often is that the success of the WPT broadcasts also hinges upon the players that have made the final tables of 4 seasons' worth of high buy-in tournaments. Until recently there was little, if any, public dispute between the WPT and the professional players who appear on WPT broadcasts. A recent spate of comments by various players and Steven Lipscomb, the head of the WPT, have changed that.

The heart of the controversy is the release that the WPT has every entrant of one of its tournaments sign. This piece of paper grants the WPT a wide range of perpetual rights to use the player's likeness on television and in other non-traditional media, including DVDs and video games. In recent weeks a number of widely recognized professional players have written in detail on the internet about why they have problems with the specific terms of the release. Andy Bloch, for instance, wrote on his website that he would no longer be playing in WPT events because the current release sets "practically no limit to what the WPT can do with a player's name and likeness, and the WPT has shown that it will exploit players' names and likenesses beyond what any of us accept as reasonable." Paul Phillips has expressed similar concerns, as has Team Full Tilt member Rafe Furst. Daniel Negreanu initially stated that he would no longer be playing in any WPT events. Chris Ferguson was quoted at the popular poker blog Card Squad as saying that the current WPT release asked for rights that he was legally unable to relinquish because of business deals in which he is involved, meaning he would also forgo playing in WPT events for the foreseeable future.

Such complaints haven't exactly fallen on deaf ears, but the response from WPT founder Steven Lipscomb was certainly less conciliatory than players like Bloch, Phillips, Furst, and Ferguson would have liked. In a post to the forums at the website of 2+2 Publishing, Lipscomb wrote he understood that the WPT and the players would not currently find themselves in such a good position without each other. However, Lipscomb insisted that the WPT release "is a standard filming release that all production companies must have signed by everyone they film," one drafted broadly to protect against "frivolous lawsuits." His main defense against the players' complaint about the latitude given to the WPT with their likenesses was that the players have nothing to worry about because he and his company value their relationship with the players so much that they would never do anything to damage it.

"I am happy," Lipscomb wrote, "to go on record today to promise the poker community that we will always listen to a player who feels that he or she is uncomfortable with how we use their image. If we feel we can or should, we will modify or eliminate that use. And, if not, we will explain, to the best of our ability, why not. What I cannot do is subject WPTE to endless lawsuits by severely restricting the rights we obtain in our filming release. No credible production company could or would do so."

Lipscomb's statement appeased poker superstar Daniel Negreanu, who retracted his refusal to play in future WPT events, but other players still remain unconvinced. Many of them cite the release used by Harrah's for its World Series of Poker tournaments, one which requires players to relinquish a much narrower spectrum of rights solely for the promotion of WSOP tournaments and broadcasts. Others have noted that because the WPT is a business entity, they have no guarantee that Lipscomb himself will always be at the company's helm. Future WPT management could decide to aggressively use more of the rights that players sign away in the current WPT release, rights that Lipscomb himself would never have thought to employ.

The controversy continues for the time being, with the WPT refusing to modify its release and more players joining in to say they will no longer play in WPT events. It remains to be seen whether a player boycott will have any effect on the WPT's ratings, or even if the WPT will make any concessions that render such a boycott unnecessary.

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