In a nutshell
Sports, media and entertainment are distinct yet overlapping areas of the law; some aspects of their practice – contracts law, for example – are common to both. Whichever strand you practice, one thing is for certain: the work is incredibly varied. Neither of these specialisms has its own distinct branch of law. Rather, they involve piecing together elements of a broad range of legal disciplines and applying them to one particular industry sector.
Media and entertainment
Media and entertainment lawyers provide legal advice and representation to those working in the entertainment industries, including the fields of theater, television, music, publishing, gambling, film and digital media. The practice has a major fault-line down the middle, with most lawyers falling on either the transactional or the contentious side. Many entertainment lawyers hone one particular specialism – the music industry, for example – while others remain generalists.
Advertising lawyers advise on every aspect of brand promotion, from drawing up contracts and deploying 'viral' campaigns to settling false advertising disputes. Again, the role of 'advertising lawyer' is somewhat of a misnomer as its attorneys tend to fall into sub-specialisms – generally using their expertise to advise on regulatory, transactional or false advertising matters.
Split between transactional and litigation work, sports lawyers help out individuals and companies involved in the sports industry. That involves anything from drawing up player signing contracts, purchasing and selling stadiums and negotiating branding agreements to litigating licensing issues.
What lawyers do
Media and entertainment
- Draft and negotiate record, publishing, producer, management, distribution, touring, merchandising, corporate sponsorship, licensing and internet agreements.
- Consult with artists, record companies and publishers regarding their financing, entertainment and internet strategies, plus the protection of their IP rights.
- Advise media and entertainment companies on their M&A and merger activities.
- Provide pre-publication content advice to broadcasters and publishers.
- Litigate matters including contractual, copyright and trademark, employment, and payment disputes.
- First Amendment law is a substantial specialism in itself – advising on issues of free speech, censorship and defamation, among other contentious issues.
- Advise broadcasters and other sports bodies on audio-visual media piracy issues.
- Sports-related litigation – anything from athlete contractual disputes to stadium construction and copyright issues.
- Advise professional sports leagues, club owners, investors and other financial institutions on sports-related licensing agreements, project finance, securitizations, and security offerings.
- Involved in M&A transactions involving sports-related bodies, and in the purchase and sale of sports teams.
- Advise sports administrators, commercial bodies and municipal authorities on hosting major sporting events.
- Manage IP portfolios for sports brands.
Realities of the job
- You need to be prepared that the actual job of an entertainment lawyer is not going to be all that different from that of any other lawyer. “The day would be the same as that of a junior associate working on a matter in any industry: reading, drafting, spending a long time on the phone with clients. It’s no different than work for any similar transactional or litigation practice group,” confesses Ruth Fisher, a co-chair of Gibson Dunn's media, entertainment and technology practice group. You will be expected, however, to understand very industry specific requirements, such as “where the rights are owned and how they are owned.”
- “If you could visualize it, you have to think about it as a wheel, where there’s IP, advertising, data content, and technology – all of those are interrelated,” illustrates James D. Taylor, chair of the advanced media and technology group at Loeb & Loeb. You will need to master many different disciplines whether you are sports or media lawyer, and excel at those. Although it means more work, he stresses that “the value and benefit of this is that you develop a holistic approach.”
- Work in the fun sector is far from being just fun! There is an awful lot to learn as you go: “It takes a great deal of hard work to stay current. Projects move very quickly,” warns Kenneth Florin, chairman at Loeb & Loeb. “It’s not a nine to five job, but if you want to dig deep, there’s plenty of opportunity.”
- The fast pace and an ever-changing nature of the job is what actually makes it so exciting and special: “I think what’s of particular interest to younger attorneys is that the legal landscape is changing fairly dramatically because of technology,” says James D. Taylor. “What’s unique is that what we are doing hasn’t existed before: we are at the very beginning of digital revolution with things continuing to accelerate.” On the other hand, some elements of work do not change, so you can expect some continuity: “Whether it is a talented director creating a new movie, or an artist creating a new recording, you have issues around that. Disputes arise between actors and studios. Those existed 30 years ago and stay the same,” reveals Glenn D. Pomerantz, litigation partner in the Los Angeles office of Munger, Tolles & Olson.
- “I have wonderful clients,” enthuses Pomerantz, “but the entertainment industry tends to attract more volatile, eccentric people than other industries, not only as business people but as lawyers too…” If the idea of working with eccentric people scares you away, you may find some consolation in the fact that you do not need to change yourself or your style to fit into the industry: “I think so many types of lawyers that other industries need, this industry needs too, so there is wide room for lawyers with different styles.”
- “In some ways it’s high profile. When you go to a dinner party most people have an understanding of the issues you work on,” says Pomerantz. However, he goes on to add: “Much of what you do is what you’d do in other industries, it’s just that it tends to be of more interest to wider community.” Ruth Fisher has a strong view on this: “The point I’m trying to make is that it’s a wonderful practice intellectually but it’s not all about the glamor. We don’t meet the stars!” You should be prepared instead to meet studios, people dealing with large studios and distributors, remembering that “clients are all the same: they expect you to do excellent work instantly.”
- With tough competition and few jobs, the path to becoming a lawyer in this discipline may be a long and arduous one, so it is for the patient. It’s important not to overestimate one’s chances: “No one should think they have an in because they have worked for an entertainment company. Half of students have experience in media companies.” Pomerantz suggests you pick a firm that does some entertainment work so you have a chance to practice it, but “if not, do general work and that will give you experience relevant for industry.” It may sound a little obvious, but all sources agree that the number one rule is simply to be a first-rate lawyer
- Probably the most significant trend affecting the media industry today is the massive displacement across the sector caused by new technologies. Lawyers must be aware of the potential new opportunities and challenges to their practice as a result of technological innovations. Ruth Fisher sees “a lot of opportunities now in helping clients navigate new distribution methods and finding ways for the ever-increasing number of channels to get to audiences.” Glenn Pomerantz says that dramatic changes in the music business brought about by rampant piracy in the early 2000s led to legitimate businesses launching their own music services including Apple's iTunes, Spotify and Amazon Prime: “A lot of companies turned toward streaming services, and lawyers are affected by that… deals, issues, disputes.”
- New technology presents new threats to the media industry in terms of IP infringement. To take new real-time piracy as an example, we can expect to see more copyright holders litigating for copyright infringement. However, the owners of live-streaming platforms may find an easy escape considering that current US law is still not firm on this point. Another option for copyright holders is to harness new technology to their own advantage to protect themselves from piracy. “Every company is thinking of how to take advantage of this great opportunity while at the same time trying to combat illegal distribution of their crown jewels,” explains Glenn Pomerantz.
- After a momentary pause as the pandemic took hold, film and television production companies returned to a whole host of new production guidelines. Mandated new protocols differ between states, but most productions have introduced Covid Compliance Officers to maintain and establish safety guidelines, with many TV productions being forced to re-write and reconsider conventional shooting techniques in order to maintain social distancing. There’s also scepticism and reluctance from insurance companies to underwrite ambitious new projects as the potential for production delays is far riskier than usual.
- Digital forms of advertising are clearly overtaking the traditional channels – in 2018, spending on digital ads outstripped TV ad revenues by an estimated $38 billion. The trend is expected to continue post Covid-19 and it’s easy to see why companies may favor investing in digital advertising – advertisements can be targeted, personalized and interactive within the platform.
- With broad overlapping IP legal ramifications, 2020 saw Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) capture public and consumer imaginations. These tokens come to represent various things – from artwork, to music albums, to GIFs – and are digital units of value recorded on blockchain technology. NFTs are bought and sold in a similar manned to traditional artworks as their coding certifies their authenticity. Jack Dorsey’s first tweet was valued at $2.5 million, with Beeple’s collage ‘Everdays: The First 5000 Days’ selling for a record-breaking $69.3 million. While IP rights are limited for NFTs at present as the tokens are simply proof of owning a particular version, some commentators predict practitioners responding to this new phenomenon.
- On the topic of copyright, Taylor Swift recently re-released her breakthrough album Fearless following years of ownership issues plaguing the artist. The rights to her first six albums were sold to Scooter Braun in 2018, who then sold the rights to an investment fund for roughly $300 million. Swift labelled the move “an act of aggression” and in re-recording the albums has sought to establish control and be rewarded financially for the album’s streaming success. This case highlights the tricky business of many musicians not owning the rights to their own songs, with masters rights fetching a pretty penny on the market.
- Former President Donald Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter in January, as the tech giant sought to mitigate against the potential for further incitement of violence in the wake of the Capitol riots. The move proved divisive, with some championing the decision, while others condemned the ability for an unelected tech company to 'silence' a (now formerly) elected official. Twitter’s actions set an interesting precedent for individuals in this media-driven age.
- Sporting regulation is facing changes and challenges in gender equality cases such as Harrison Browne’s – a transgender man who played for the National Women’s Hockey League. In 2017 Browne was left with no choice but to announce his retirement from the NWHL to begin hormone replacement therapy. Sporting regulation, nationally and internationally, means that transgender athletes like Browne are left in a tough spot both legally and personally – either leave the sport altogether to transition medically, or stay and delay. As of April 2021, beauty brand LUX is partnering with Semenya in the hope of overturning the IAAF ruling.
- In 2018, the Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, legalizing sports betting at a national level. This legalizes what is estimated to be a $138 billion industry, but also throws fantasy sport betting companies like DraftKings and FanFuel up into the air. 2020 saw sports betting cement itself as a US mainstay, with Americans betting an estimated $3 billion in October according to the American Gambling Association. While currently only 20 states have legalised sports betting, experts predict nearly 80% of US states will offer some form of legal sports betting in the years to come.
- The ongoing legal battle for equitable pay amongst the women’s and men’s US national soccer teams continues to highlight the chasm in remuneration in the sport. The development and influence of women’s sport will continue to grow in 2021. Ever increasing exposure and momentum will see greater levels of corporate sponsorship; marketing geared toward younger athletes; and expanding broadcasting and television deals. Sports lawyers will be necessary as this evolution engrains itself in the mainstream.
- As cancellations swept the live events industry in 2020, the future looks poised to take on an increasingly virtual slant. Commentators predict the use of virtual and augmented reality systems will rise in prominence, as performers seek to recoup losses incurred by postponed or canceled events. In one groundbreaking example, rapper Travis Scott last year held a virtual reality concert called Astronomical within the Fortnite video game platform. Companies are now gearing towards a virtual future, with platforms seeking to cash in on these “pay-per-view” virtual concerts, raising interesting questions for advertising strategies as brands similarly seek to cash-in on these events.
Advice from the top:
Bruce Wilson, a senior corporate lawyer at Covington & Burling with expertise in sports law:
“Probably the most important thing I've learnt is that in this transactional area, there's industry expertise but not sports law per se – it's not a separate branch of the law. There are very unique issues in antitrust law and competition, but the most important thing to remember is that a transactional sports practice requires you to draw on so many different areas of corporate work. It's M&A, financing, IP, media, and competition all rolled into one and you have to be comfortable in each of those areas.”
“Challenges are the rules of the game. In order for sports to be interesting, someone else must be doing the same thing. You can't have a football game or test match with just one team turning up. It's a competitive universe, with people competing in terms of sport, attention and ticket sales. But competitors on the pitch need to be business colleagues off the pitch.”
Scott Edelman, a litigation partner and co-chair of Gibson Dunn's media, entertainment and technology group:
“From my perspective, I don't think entertainment law is inherently 'sexy.' I don't work with celebrities – I work with studios, networks and music companies, which are corporate enterprises just like Bank of America, General Motors and the Shell Oil Company. Even for those working at boutique firms who represent the talent, it isn't necessarily easy. Some celebrity clients can be demanding, and frequently need to be pampered. Competition to do entertainment work is intense, and nobody should get into entertainment law thinking it is easy.”
“My general advice is don't load up on entertainment classes at law school – maybe just take a couple of basic classes like copyright or IP. If you want to get into entertainment law, use law school as a time to cover basic solid subjects including securities, commercial law and antitrust. There will be plenty of time to focus on entertainment later.”
Faiza Saeed is presiding partner at Cravath, working in M&A primarily with media and entertainment clients:
“The clients are less accustomed to full-blown long-form agreements, and some of the dynamics that go into being more precise in describing a transaction and what the restrictions will be on two companies going forward. It's often helpful to speak their language, and understand how they do deals in their own business, so you can do a better job of counseling.”
“I think that students have to make a decision as to which side of the business they're interested in. Are they deal-oriented, in terms of being a corporate transactional lawyer, or more on the entertainment side – dealing more with talent? They're very different career paths that lead to working at very different firms, and many are fuzzy as to which side they want to be on.”
Larry Weinstein, co-head of Proskauer's false advertising and trademark group in New York:
“It sounds almost stupid to say as it's so obvious, but if you want to be a good advertising lawyer you need to find advertising interesting. If you're a sports lawyer, you have to like sport. If you're an entertainment lawyer, you have to like the music or the movie business, for example.”
“When students are searching for law firms to apply for, they should try and get beyond the generalities they see on the firm websites. We do this kind of work 24/7, and there's a big difference between practicing advertising law at a firm like ours compared to other firms who only do false advertising work on rare occasions.”