EA, Ubisoft trade fire over hire

Need for Speed maker calls out Splinter Cell developer's use of non-compete clauses; Ubi says it needs to "evaluate" situation.

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The Canadian winters may be cold, but inside the boardrooms of Montreal's two biggest game developers, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, the temperatures are reaching the boiling point.

Today, after hiring an Ubisoft artist to join its Montreal studio, game publisher Electronic Arts fired off a damning letter criticizing Ubisoft Montreal's policy of requiring all staff to sign a non-compete clause. The clause seeks to prevent any employee from taking a job with another game company for one year after leaving Ubisoft.

The subject recalls a legal case brought in August of 2003 by Ubisoft in Canadian courts. Then, Ubisoft charged five former employees with violating the non-compete agreement after the artists accepted jobs with Electronic Arts' Montreal studio.

While the two companies sparred in court, the would-be EA employees sat on the sidelines, unable to work. And while that case was never fully concluded, the de facto winner was Ubisoft, since courts ultimately upheld a temporary restraining order preventing the staffers from working on any EA game. It was a full year after they left Ubisoft before they were allowed to do so.

Today's letter has rekindled the war of words between the two publishers. "I am shocked," Ubisoft Montreal president and general manager Martin Tremblay said in a telephone interview tonight. "They accuse us of blocking the expansion of the [game] industry in Quebec. ... Have they lost their minds?"

In a statement, Electronic Arts wrote that it "perceives this practice [of non-compete clauses] as a constraint on the creative freedom of the individual employee," as well as "a severe limitation on the growth of the multi-media industry in Quebec." The statement says the non-compete clause--a business practice that is legal in Quebec-- is "contrary to the spirit of the salary grants that Quebec offers to the industry which are designed to stimulate growth and creative freedom."

Tremblay said he first learned of the letter from members of the press seeking comment. The letter, signed by his former colleague Alain Tascan (EA Montreal's general manager) was sent to Tremblay as well as EA's local attorneys of record, the Montreal law firm of Heenan Blaikie.

However, if EA is girding for another legal battle it may have picked the wrong time to put up its dukes. "We use [the non-compete] if we feel the people [leaving] have too much information," Tremblay said. Because he has yet to know who EA has hired, he said the company would first evaluate the situation before taking any steps.

Tremblay did make one item perfectly clear: In the eight years Ubisoft Montreal has been in operation, the developer has chosen to seek enforcement of the clause only once, in the case that was brought in 2003. At no other time--over years that have averaged 5 percent turnover, according to Tremblay--has Ubisoft been driven to seek enforcement.

"We don't want to block our people from working in the game industry," Tremblay said today. "We act only if necessary."

To support his company's use of a non-compete clause, Tremblay reflected on the new Activision operation in Montreal, claiming Activision, adapting to the business environment in Quebec, instituted a similar policy of requiring local talent to sign non-competes as a condition of employment. At press time, Activision had not responded to an e-mail request to confirm that policy.

In any case, EA is ready. "If they sue us, we will always defend our position and our people," a US EA rep said today. Tascan, however, was more diplomatic. "We're not picking a fight. My intention [with the letter] is to give the ability to any game developer in Quebec an interview at EA, and hire them if that's what they want. ... We want to be sure anybody can work anywhere they want."

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