Horse Jumping Leagues Jockey in Legal Tilt Over Equestrian ‘NFL’

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North America’s first professional horse jumping leagues are in court over whether one illegally copied the other. And per a recent opinion by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman, this case is nowhere near the finish line. On May 26, the Miami-based judge recommended the continuation of a copyright infringement, breach and fraud lawsuit brought by the National Equestrian League (NEL) against Major League Show Jumping (MLSJ).

Developed by JumpingClash (JC), a Spanish company that sought to popularize horse jumping, the NEL required several years and significant sums of money to build, organizers say. JC says it cultivated a plan that included extensive analysis before determining North America would serve as a viable market. NEL, which was planned to launch this year, would be no ordinary league. It would represent the “the NFL of Equestrianism,” where teams would consist of elite horses and where riders compete “in America’s top venues.” Strategies for television coverage, sponsorships and advertising were all hatched. Organizers also secured copyright protection for betting operations and competition methods, as well as approval from the International Federation for Equestrian Sports, a global governing body.

The legal controversy originated about four years ago. JC met with Morrissey Management Group (MMG), a Florida-based equestrian event management company. JC sought MMG’s expertise in converting the planned league into a reality, and the two sides signed a contract wherein MMG became NEL’s image promoter and representative. During this time, MMG and collaborators are portrayed by NEL as “obtaining various proprietary and secret information,” including such trade secrets as “business plans, costs, regulatory know-how, various contacts of potential investors, managers, sponsors, venues . . . financial projections and economic scenarios . . . competition format, timetables, partners and teams and their copyright protected materials.”

NEL charges that MMG and collaborators “sabotaged” the nascent league. They allegedly failed to share key information with potential NEL investors, venues, sponsors and other stakeholders. They are also accused of exploiting inside NEL information to form a rival league, MLSJ. This rival, NEL contends, blatantly copies key elements.

In both leagues, court documents say, teams are comprised of between five and six riders. They also share similarities in scheduling: three days of events, with three rounds taking place in one day, and events spread out across North America in “iconic” locations. Further, there are three riders per team in the first round, two in the second round and one in the jump-off round. League structure is also allegedly replicated through a franchise model, presentation as “made-for-TV” and incorporation of the same graphics and other properties. NEL maintains the defendants’ alleged transgressions led to cancellation fees and damage to NEL’s reputation within the horse jumping community.

In legal filings, MMG and co-defendants forcefully dispute NEL’s allegations. They maintain that NEL can’t identify an intentional breach of any contractual term. The defendants also insist negotiated confidentiality language is vague and unenforceable. Further, they assert that NEL is engaged in an unlawful and “transparent attempt” to block competition “in the realm of professional horse jumping” without the power of a non-compete agreement. To that end, the defendants argue that NEL can neither gain copyright protection in a game concept or athletic event, nor claim ownership of a sport.

Judge Goodman mostly sided with NEL in his review of MMG’s motion to dismiss. He reasoned that NEL’s copyright claims ought not to be dismissed so swiftly. “While defendants,” Judge Goodman wrote, “may be correct that some elements may not be protected (like the broad idea of a horse jumping competition), this Court should not undertake the fact-focused process of determining the merits of plaintiffs’ copyright claims on a motion to dismiss.”

The judge also rejected MMG’s arguments citing NBA v. Motorola. In that 1997 case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held against the NBA, which insisted that Motorola and STATS, Inc. could not lawfully transmit scores of live NBA games through handheld pagers. Judge Goodman distinguished the Motorola case as concerning copyright protection of live basketball games. NEL’s case, in contrast, concerns “constituent elements” of a league—such as the one-on-one rider format, unique composition of teams, utilization of a franchise model in marquee locations, etc.—“not the sport of horse jumping itself.”

Judge Goodman’s recommendation will be reviewed by U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno. MMG has two weeks following the recommendation to file written objections.

This is not the first lawsuit involving one league claiming another is too similar. In the mid-2000s, the World Adult Kickball Association (WAKA) sued DC Kickball for copyright infringement. WAKA objected to DC Kickball relying on the same kickball rules, including “the clearly unique requirement that there be four men and four women at a minimum to play.” The case was eventually settled out of court.

Also, while game plays are generally not considered copyrightable since they are mere ideas, sports formations have received copyright protection. In 1985, a veterinary dermatologist from Texas registered with the U.S. Copyright Office the “I-Bone,” a formation the doctor unsuccessfully attempted to convince college football coaches to use. The doctor considered suing the University of Colorado for deploying the Power-Bone formation (similar in name and perhaps similar in function), but a lawsuit never materialized.

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