The U.S. Supreme Court turned away an appeal by Electronic Arts Inc., leaving the video-game maker to face claims that it owes money to thousands of retired professional football players for using their images in the company’s popular Madden NFL games.
Refusing to hear free-speech arguments, the justices left intact a federal appeals court ruling that allowed the lawsuit, which was filed by players including former Los Angeles Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo.
The suit is among several Electronic Arts has faced for using avatars resembling amateur and professional athletes in its games without their permission. In 2013 the company agreed to pay $40 million to settle a lawsuit by former college athletes over use of their images.
The case centers on Electronic Arts’ historical-team Madden NFL games, offered from 2001 to 2009. The games featured avatars that used former players’ height, weight, positions, skin tone, skill level and jersey number, though not their names.
In its appeal, Electronic Arts said the lower court ruling would “chill protected speech,” putting artists at risk of liability when they include realistic images or references to famous people. The company said the case could affect the work of biographers, filmmakers, singers and photographers.
Ferragamo and fellow retired National Football League players Michael Davis and Billy Joe Dupree are pressing the case on behalf of 6,000 former players. They say courts for decades have recognized the right of athletes and celebrities to control the commercial use of their names and likenesses.
The Madden NFL video game series, named after John Madden, the former NFL player, Super Bowl-winning coach, and commentator, has sold more than 100 million copies since its first version in 1988.
The case is Electronic Arts v. Davis, 15-424.