World Wrestling Federation Not Liable For Illegal Acts Of Its Licensees

Video Game Law Blog

March 27, 2003

A long running dispute between the World Wresting Federation (the “Federation”) and the World Wide Fund for Nature(the “Fund”) over the use of the initials “WWF,” in a logo referred to as the “Scratch” logo, was resolved in 2002 when an injunction was granted against the Federation, preventing the Federation, its officers, agents, subsidiaries, licensees and sub-licensees from directly or indirectly using the initials “WWF” throughout the world, other than in a specified form. The Federation was specifically restrained from using the “Scratch” logo, and the Federation quickly rebranded its wrestling empire as the “WWE.”

The Case

This 2003 case from the English Supreme Court of Judicature’s Court of Appeal considered the special case of one licensee, THQ, which developed and published videogames based on Federation wrestling characters. THQ’s license was granted prior to the injunction. While the company wasn’t a party to the 2002 injunction, it had received correspondence from the Federation warning that use of the Scratch logo was forbidden. Accordingly, THQ removed all references to the logo from its packaging promotional material, and existing games where feasible, and did not incorporate the logo into any new games. However, the logo was embedded in the gameplay code for several existing games. THQ argued that, due to the cost and technical difficulties involved in re-programming an existing games, that they should not be required to remove them at the code level. THQ argued that the games were still of significant commercial value and could not simply be pulled from shelves. THQ applied for a declaration that the continued marketing of its games was not in breach of the 2002 injunction, and that THQ would not be in contempt of court for defying the injunction and selling the games. At trial, THQ lost the court found that continued use of the logo by THQ was the same as a breach of the injunction by the Federation, aided and abetted by THQ. THQ appealed the decision.

The Outcome

The appeal was allowed. The injunction imposed obligations on the Federation only, not on THQ. Although the Federation was directly responsible for the acts of its officers, servants and agents, the injunction didn’t impose an absolute responsibility on the Federation to be liable for the acts of independent third parties, such as licensees like THQ. The court found that while the Federation was forbidden from authorizing or causing licensees to ignore the injunction, it couldn’t be expected to do things outside its powers to prevent use of the logo. The court found that the Federation was required by the injunction to take “all reasonable steps” to prevent licensees from breaching the injunction, but had clearly done so in communicating the 2002 injunction decision to its licensees. THQ did not “aid and abet” the Foundation in breaching the injunction; it was simply an independent party protecting its own commercial interests, which had arisen before the injunction was granted. 

World Wide Fund for Nature (formerly World Wildlife Fund) et al v. World Wrestling Foundation Entertainment Inc. and THQ/Jakks Pacific LLC
[2003] E.W.C.A. Civ. 401

Summary by Dani Lemon