Lawyers kick in and boot up the beautiful game

The stadium was a large air-conditioned room in a modern building near the central railway station in The Hague, Netherlands, on Thursday last week. A Sony PlayStation 2 game console was hooked up to a digital projector and booted up. Sony's This Is Football 2002 was projected on a giant screen, and a small crowd watched the virtual players pass the ball and make runs toward goal.

Game magazines passed from hand to hand and those in the room discussed for hours what makes or breaks a soccer video game. Realism, that's it, everybody agreed. But what is realism?

Is it players that look just like the guys you see on TV? Their faces can even be scanned for use in the game -- in outfits that match those of the real teams. This lets a game player win every tournament for his favorite team. Or is it the slippery pitch caused by virtual rain leading to beautifully executed sliding tackles and a string of fouls?

Four men in the room said recognizing the team, players and, perhaps more important, your rival is what matters most. Two of them were wearing the specially colored and branded clothing of Ajax and Feyenoord -- two of the Netherlands' big three teams.

Others argued that it is the special effects that count.

These people are not gamers. Indeed, only one person there fitted the description of a stereotypical nerd -- glasses, messy hair -- and he was the only one who knew how to control the game.

In fact, these were the lawyers who have now arrived on the pitch of virtual football. The stadium was in the district court of The Hague, the center-forward was the judge and those left and right of him were lawyers fighting over whether Sony Computer Entertainment Europe Ltd. infringed the rights that three Dutch top soccer clubs claim to have on their outfit designs and player names and images.

The two men wearing fan clothing are legal department employees of Ajax and Feyenoord, who are both suing Sony, as is the Netherlands' third big club PSV, whose main sponsor is Sony rival Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV. PSV's representative went incognito. The nerd is employed by a Sony distributor.

This is a big boys' game about money. Sony used the shirts, player names and images in its game, but would not pay any money for the supposed rights. The clubs then began fighting to get the Sony game banned in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.

The match in court took almost five hours. Intellectual property lawyers from both sides demonstrated the game, showed game boxes, magazines and soccer club merchandizing to the judge; it doesn't get more realistic than this.

The soccer teams' lawyer kept effective possession of the conversation, until the judge had to cut him off after almost the full 90 minutes, no overtime allowed in court. Sony's lawyer took the hint and kept his remarks brief. Sony does not recognize the outfit designs as brands in the way it uses them and the players just want too much money, the Sony lawyer told the court.

The judge said he had never seen a PlayStation, let alone played video games, but said he does watch soccer on TV. Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord asked him to take the PlayStation home, they would even supply a carrying bag. The judge shrugged and looked at Sony's lawyer, who came in with a late tackle. No PlayStation for the judge.

The off-field fighting among the big boys has at least one upside -- some very happy younger boys. Both lawyers mentioned their sons -- they now have to play PlayStation 2 just so dad can do his work.

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Joris Evers

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