Yet another blockbuster IPL season has come to a close, and cricket’s premier league, its players and owners are raking in their well-deserved moolah. This fact has not gone unnoticed even in India’s courts of law.
On April 26, bang in the middle of the season, a judgment was delivered in the Delhi High Court, with far reaching implications for India’s booming fantasy sports market. The country’s Online Fantasy Sports (OFS) ecosystem is said to be valued at a whopping $25.44 billion last year, and is growing at 13.9% year-on-year.
It is in this scintillating backdrop that a high stakes legal battle was waged between new-age sports tech companies – Rario, on one side, and Mobile Premier League (MPL) and Striker, on the other.
The Fascinating World of Digital Playing Cards
If you are a child of the nineties, or even earlier, it was a common sight to indulge in exchanging playing cards of your favourite sportspersons. Such cards often become a valuable collector’s item over subsequent decades. This phenomenon – well documented in the US – was sought to be replicated by Rario in the Indian market, albeit in the digital space.
Rario claims to be the world’s first “officially licensed digital collectibles platform for cricket” enabling “fans to buy, sell & trade cricket Digital Player Cards”.
Top cricketing names like Smriti Mandhana, KL Rahul and Faf Du Plessis are just few of the 1000+ cricketers whose cards are said to be available for purchase on Rario’s platforms. As submitted in court, Rario has acquired these exclusive licenses for a sum of over Rs 148 crore, in the last year alone.
What’s the matter?
Having purchased these exclusive rights, Rario approached the Delhi High Court seeking to restrain rival firms MPL and Striker, from similarly using such digital playing cards of the very same players. Rario said that such usage infringes on the affected players’ ‘publicity rights’.
MPL hosts multiple third-party fantasy sports applications on its platform, one of which is ‘Striker’. The unique selling point of Striker’s fantasy sports app is the necessity of players to first purchase ‘Digital Player Cards’ of the cricketers they wish to include in their teams. These player cards are NFT (non-fungible token) enabled, using blockchain technology.
In its defence, Striker argued that their Digital Playing Cards in no way claimed to be the authentic cards of the players. They contended that since each and every cricketer on Striker’s platform has an associated card, there is no chance that any app user can gain the wrong impression that these cards are ‘officially licensed’.
Moreover, Striker pointed out that the Digital Playing Cards available on its platform are restricted for trading within its own app, for the limited purpose of enabling fantasy sporting gaming. As such, these cards have no commercial value ‘outside’ of Striker’s platform, which is where Rario’s rights would lie.
The court noted that publicity rights are not inherent in India. It said that such rights are restricted at best to ensure consumers are not misled into thinking that the playing cards are in any way officially endorsed by the player concerned.
It concluded that for an OFS service like Striker, since playing cards are available for all cricketers, there is no threat of consumers assuming that such cards are actually authorised by each individual athlete.
Additionally, while rejecting the argument of unjust enrichment at the expense of the sportspersons concerned, the judgment observed that “it is a known fact that Indian cricketers earn huge amounts through Indian Premier League auctions, BCCI contracts, match fees, besides various brand endorsements and other sponsorships.”
As pointed out in the judgment, the OFS industry in India already boasts of over thirteen crore users. The sector also enjoys the active backing and encouragement from the Union Government, as evidenced in the latest the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023.
Had the Delhi High Court penalised MPL and Striker, it may have sent a chilling effect through the entire OFS sector, threatening its very existence.
On the flip side, such court verdicts also risk lowering the commercial value of intellectual property rights of athletes, and could dissuade companies like Rario from making continued efforts towards purchasing sportspersons’ digital branding rights.