Background

Victory without resistance

17 Jul 2020

Can chess moves be copyrighted? The Russian promoter Ilya Merenzon repeatedly sued chess24 and other platforms for copyright infringements and failed. Now a Paris court has ruled in favour of Merenzon and his company World Chess, who claim a legal breakthrough. Stefan Löffler examines the background to the case.

Is chess promoter Ilya Merenzon about to come back or on his way out?
Is chess promoter Ilya Merenzon about to come back or on his way out? (Worldchess.com)

Publishers have dominated the legal argument that chess moves are equivalent to the final scores in sport competitions and are therefore not subject to copyright. Ilya Merenzon, has persistently challenged this stance over many years. The Russian chess promoter has been trying to secure the live rights for major chess events and to restrict distribution of the moves to a delayed feed or until after the game. In 2016, he sued several websites in the commercial court in Moscow and lost. He tried again a few months later in a district court in New York – and again failed.

Now he claims to have reached a legal breakthrough in a Paris court. The first chamber of the third section of the Tribunal Judiciaire de Paris issued a verdict on 11 June that the enterprise ArtdesEchecs.fr had exploited the investments of World Chess “for inferior parasitic motives” and ruled that it had to pay € 50,000 in damages to World Chess and € 15,000 legal expenses to the court.

After alerting the Russian daily Kommersant and other Russian news media, World Chess celebrated “a landmark decision in the long legal battle between World Chess, the official organiser of the World Chess Championship cycle events, and unauthorized chess broadcasters.” According to the statement, “chess organisers who bear costs of the event are holders of a Property right and accordingly have exclusive monetisation rights over the live broadcast of chess moves and that those constitute the principal commercial value of the chess events. According to the French Court, taking the moves for free from the internet or the organiser’s website constitutes free-riding and infringes on the organisers’ commercial rights.“

The story has hardly been noticed internationally in the absence of a press release. World Chess is registered as a UK company and has a postal address which recently relocated from Central London to Milton Keynes. However, its staff, contact numbers and investors are Russian.

Merenzon’s story seems to work in Russia, where he keeps finding sponsors and even investors.“

Its exclusive contract to hold major FIDE events goes back to 2012 when the American businessman Andrew Paulson founded Agon and registered it in Jersey. Two years later Paulson passed on the company to Merenzon for the symbolic price of £1. After FIDE insisted that its commercial side could not be represented by an enterprise based in a tax-haven, World Chess was registered in the UK and in 2016 took over the contracts and rights from Agon.

World Chess tried to base the business on selling exclusive online access to the events. While some websites complied with its demands to show the games in arrears – after their completion or with a 30 minutes delay, the major platforms like chess24, Chess.com and some others continued to broadcast virtually in real time. The official broadcasts from World Chess found few subscribers as chess followers considered them inferior to the mostly free offerings by other websites. When sued by World Chess, the major platforms robustly defended their position, whereas ArtdesEchecs.fr did not.

Fabien Libiszewski was hired by Art des Echecs to comment a few games and was surprised that he never heard back.
Fabien Libiszewski was hired by Art des Echecs to comment a few games and was surprised that he never heard back.

The website appeared only for a very limited time and is now offline although its YouTube channel can still be accessed. Its content was by and large limited to the broadcast of four out of the twelve regular and the tie-break games of the world championship between Carlsen and Caruana in 2018 with commentary in French by Fabien Libiszewski. The French grandmaster told ChessTech that he received payment from the website and that he was surprised that he never heard from the company again. Libiszewski is not aware of any chess fans who paid a subscription to ArtdesEchecs.fr.

What seems like a French enterprise was in fact connected with a certain Alexander Andreichenko and an office address in Belgorod in South Western Russia. It is quite a common name but unknown in Russian chess circles. No one replied to queries sent to ArtdesEchecs.fr’s email address. Merenzon told ChessTech that they had reached a settlement, protected by a non-disclosure agreement, and that there would not be an appeal. He also maintains that the court reviewed the case on merit.

The judgement shows that there was no defense. (PDF, 96.1 KB) The court addressed why it could deliberate over a case between two Russians. Further to that it considered only arguments brought by World Chess and its lawyers from Nataf, Fajgenbaum et Associés and didn’t mention copyrights on chess moves in general. ChessTech enquired who paid the court fee, but the court’s press office refused “to comment a judgement”.

Merenzon firmly denied that ArtdesEchecs.fr was set up for the purpose of creating a precedent in a French court: “This is not only completely false, but also upsetting. First of all, I have never heard of this person or company before communicating regarding the championship and the rights, and second – we filed numerous legal actions, and third – I don’t care about the precedent because the rights are not with us for the future events, and fourth, France does not work by precedents, and fifth — I believe and invested money in this because chess needs to be professional.”

FIDE renegotiated its contract with World Chess in January 2019. The new FIDE leadership reclaimed the rights to organise the Candidates Tournament and World Championships, leaving Merenzon only with the Grand Prix series.

World Chess tries to be associated with FIDE as much as possible
World Chess tries to be associated with FIDE as much as possible

World Chess also still retains a contract for the FIDE Online Arena. According to the minutes of its June meeting, the FIDE Council “expressed dissatisfaction with the nature of the current agreement regarding FIDE Online Arena and to authorise the President to seek legal advice to revise or terminate the agreement for the FIDE Online Arena.” The official platform is increasingly perceived as causing reputational damage. While the playing experience is limited, its main appeal seems to be its offering of “FIDE online ratings”, and “FIDE Online Master” titles.

World Chess still claims to offer “Official FIDE Broadcasting” and tries to be seen as the commercial representative of FIDE, which the world federation felt complied to correct. Merenzon has also announced his intention to list his company in a stock exchange. His story seems to work in Russia, where Merenzon keeps finding sponsors and even investors like billionaire Igor Rybakov. According to Crunchbase in May 2019 he raised $6 million.

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