Pros Unmoved by WPT Founder's Reassurances

The recent controversy between the World Poker Tour and several top tournament pros doesn't seem to be slowing down at all, despite an open letter to the poker community from WPT Co-founder Steve Lipscomb.

To briefly recap: The World Poker Tour requires all tournament players to grant rights to the WPT to use their image and likeness in pretty much any way the WPT chooses, without ever compensating the players for that use. Several top tournament pros aren't happy with the agreement, including WSOP Champion Chris Ferguson, who told me that he is unable to play in WPT events, because the release he is required to sign would cause him to be in breach of at least one of his existing contracts.

In his open letter to the poker community, World Poker Tour co-founder Steve Lipscomb addressed the concerns raised by Ferguson and others.

Lou Krieger, a respected poker authority and author of several poker books, quotes Lipscomb's letter on his blog, and replies to a few of  Libscomb's statements. Krieger's comments, as well a comments from some top pro players, on the flip.
Steve Lipscomb says, "The latest hot button issue seems to be the filming release we require players to sign before they play in World Poker Tour events. The release we utilize is a standard filming release that all production companies must have signed by everyone they film - or the television broadcaster will refuse to air our material. Filming releases are always broadly drafted to protect against frivolous law suits. The language is clear. The production company can use all the footage it shoots and the person's image in all media.

But, the story does not end there. The World Poker Tour is a business. We value our relationship with WPT players and have always acted with great care and deference when using player images. The few players now trying to stir up controversy around player releases are lost in hypotheticals - not reality."

Krieger expresses the sentiment I've heard from several tournament pros, "The players are operating from the perspective that in a business relationship the WPT and Steve Lipscomb are not one and the same. In the future, Lipscomb might not be associated with the World Poker Tour and there is no guarantee that his successor would attempt to act in the best interests of the players, as Steve claims he is doing now. Someone else in a position of power might interpret the “standard release” in quite a different light, and when one signs his or her name to an agreement, the boycotting players realize that the agreement is with a corporate entity, not an individual."

I wondered that myself. If the WPT is not interested in using some of the rights they're demanding, why are they making the demands in the first place? Anyone with any business savvy will have a very hard time accepting "Just trust me" in this case. In fact, a top player, speaking to me on condition of anonymity said, "[Steve Lipscomb] says he needs the releases to be as they are to protect WPT, but players have offered to sign a release like the WSOP and they refused. In response to complaints about their video game rights, they did modify their agreement to explicity rule out making avatars of the players without their consent.%uFFFD However, that was the only limitation.%uFFFD By only excluding that, they could use clips of you in the game, or even put your face on the box, with no compensation!%uFFFD In fact, because they reserve these rights, a player can NOT grant exclusive rights to any video game company, because WPT already reserves certain rights. That's just one example."

It is clearly a complex issue for several pros, who need to balance protecting their rights with maintaining their relationship with the WPT, as evidenced by frequent WPT final table participant, Daniel Negreanu.

When the issue was brought up at Negreanu's Fullcontactpoker.com's message board, Daniel was dismissive of the complaints, and suggested that the WPT would not miss Bloch or Ferguson, and wouldn't respond to any player pressure unless players like Gus Hansen, Hoyt Corkins and himself orchestrated a boycott. That post and all which reference it have since been scrubbed from the website.

But the following day, Negreanu said, "[T]here is simply NO WAY I could play on the WPT if they expect me to sign a release that gives them the right to use my name and likeness to promote the WPTOnline.

It's important to note that I DO trust Steve Lipscomb and Lyle Berman enough to know that they would never do that. What I don't have, is a guarantee that for one, it's solely up to them, and two, that they would NEVER sell the WPT to someone else.

If an outside entity took over the WPT they could use these releases and then we'd all be knee deep in legal bills." Daniel concluded, "[U]ntil further notice, based on that scary e-mail, I just don't think I'd be able to play on the WPT and that would really, really suck. I love playing on the WPT and hope that something can be done in time for Bahamas."

The day after that, he reversed his position and announced that Libscomb's letter had, in fact, given him the reassurance he needed to play in WPT events. "Ok, it looks like I'm sticking with my plan of playing all three WPT events in January and I'm really excited about it. I've spoke to lawyers, my agent, to Steve, and I feel comfortable that the information I received is accurate."

But not all pros are so easily swayed. On pocketfives.com, Annie Duke wrote, "1) The new release from the WPT gives them the right to use your image in any and all media...not just to promote the WPT show itself.%uFFFD This means they could put your image on, for example, a WPT slot machine, T-shirts, Posters, books etc without your approval or any compensation to you.%uFFFD In other words, by signing the release you grant them all licensing rights for free to your image.

2) Steve asserts that all media companies use a similar release.%uFFFD This is patently untrue.%uFFFD ESPN's release, for example, only grants rights for use of your image and name to promote the show itself...in commercials for example.%uFFFD This is a much narrower release and other releases%uFFFDI have signed for%uFFFDTV appearances are%uFFFDthe same...they grant rights for only promotion of the show itself.

3)  There is a sentiment that because the WPT made us well-known that we owe them.%uFFFD First, remember we pay our own buy-ins and entry fees. It is our own money we play for. "

Annie's third point refutes the most common criticism being leveled at pro players, and is also echoed by Lou Krieger. "Has the WPT led to unprecedented opportunity for poker players? Of course it has. Many of the players who are now household names would be recognizable only within the very insular world of other poker players if the WPT had not come along and turned poker into watchable TV programming . . . Having said that, the fact remains that many players are now media stars and it doesn’t really matter how they achieved their measure of fame. If the WPT “created” their celebrity status, surely the WPT benefitted from this creation too, since people now tune in to watch their favorite players as well as the poker competition itself. Creating a celebrity does not mean that the WPT “owns” them forever."

Annie, Daniel, and Lou all go into much greater detail in their respective posts, and they are very much worth reading for a greater understanding of what looks to be a protracted battle both in public and behind the scenes. As Lou says, "[T]his is a poker game on a grand scale, and in some ways it’s much more exciting to watch than the episodes shown on television."
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