July 23, 2013 11:14am PT by Eriq Gardner
How BET's 'The Game' Launched a Legal War Over a Facebook Page (Exclusive)
In January 2011, the television industry was shocked by the success of BET's premiere of The Game, which had been canceled by The CW two years earlier.
The show's premiere attracted 7.7 million viewers, which led to some examination of how a revived series about the lives of professional football players had become so popular. As detailed by The Hollywood Reporter that month, the network exploited social media to generate hype. One woman who was central to the story was Stacey Mattocks, an insurance agent who had created a Facebook page when the show was on The CW and worked to get the show back on air.
On Monday, Mattocks filed a lawsuit against BET, which reveals the struggle she had with the network over her page for the previous two years.
Mattocks said she first created a fan page on Facebook in 2008, and by the time BET picked up the show, it had 750,000 "likes." As BET prepared to debut the show, the Facebook page helped create "buzz," and grew at approximately 100,000 likes per week.
For her work, Mattocks says that BET agreed to pay her $30 per hour to work as a social media "freelancer."
But the network wanted more.
"BET was searching for a more 'permanent' way to capitalize on the FB Page and Mattocks' efforts," says the lawsuit. "Therefore, on December 15, 2010, BET submitted a proposed contract to Mattocks that would have paid her a maximum of $85,000.00 over a one year period. Mattocks declined this offer because it was unreasonably low, would have stripped her of all rights to the FB Page, and, moreover, could have been terminated at any point by BET, with or without cause."
The network was "undeterred," says the plaintiff, and BET "wined-and-dined" her for weeks leading up to the show's premiere. Mattocks says she was flown out to Los Angeles for promotional interviews, "red-carpet treatment" and a screening of the show's premiere.
By the time the series premiered as the second-most-watched program in BET’s 30-year history, her Facebook page had 3.3 million likes.
According to the complaint, "In newspaper and magazine articles, Mattocks was credited by BET executives for playing a critical role in reviving interest in the Show and making it a massive success with viewers."
But Mattocks refused to transfer ownership of her Facebook page to BET, and on Feb. 8, 2011, she alleges that Facebook disabled her account.
BET then contacted Facebook to inform the social platform that it had been a "mistake," says the lawsuit. The account was restored, but the following day, BET allegedly requested that Mattocks provide them with "administrative access." Mattocks also says she was given a "Letter Agreement," that provided BET with such access with the assurance that "BET will not change the administrative rights to the Page to exclude you from the Page."
Mattocks says she executed the agreement fearing that her account would be randomly disabled.
Then in December, Mattocks describes how she noticed that BET had suddenly created its own Facebook page for the show "in an apparent attempt to unfairly compete." That page didn't get much traction, however, leading the network to allegedly make another offer to acquire rights to her Facebook page (as well as a Twitter account established by Mattocks) for $15,000.
Mattocks countered with an offer for $1.2 million after performing her own valuation research.
BET allegedly came back with an offer for a three-year agreement for Mattocks to become "Social Media Specialist" for BET's scripted programming that would have paid her $4,166.66 per month, with a cap of $50,000 in total compensation.
Not only did Mattocks apparently reject that offer, she demoted BET's administrative access to the Facebook page from "manager" to "moderator."
That allegedly led BET in August 2012 to send her a letter that attempted to terminate the Letter Agreement, rescind intellectual property rights and cease-and-desist from using BET IP. The cable network is also said to have contacted Facebook and instructed the service to remove her Facebook page, which by then had amassed 6.2 million likes.
The removal of the Facebook page caused Mattocks to lose income, she says. At the time, she had worked out a deal with a company called Sulia that paid her about $2,000 to $3,000 per week, plus $300-$500 in sponsored posts. She says she also got money from Google AdSense and for Amazon referrals.
She's now alleging that BET has committed tortious interference, breach of contract, breach of good faith and fair dealing, and copyright infringement. The latter count is based on the allegation that BET copied elements from her Facebook page onto its own Facebook page. She is represented by attorneys Alexander Brown, Peter Herman and Adam Goldman at Tripp Scott.
The lawsuit obviously raises several great legal questions, including what might constitute a work-for-hire in the social media context, whether creative elements put online constitute derivatives of a show or are independently copyrightable, whether networks can grab control over fan-produced social media assets at any time, whether there's any interference that might come from disrupting online advertising relationships and much, much more!
We've reached out to BET's corporate parent Viacom and will update with anything said in response to the lawsuit.