Ubisoft and EA spar in Canadian court

Ubisoft Montreal rolls up the welcome mat--brings legal action against former Splinter Cell designers hired on to new Electronic Arts studio.

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In a court case that has received significant press in Montreal, but little in the US, Ubisoft last month charged five former employees with violating non-compete agreements. The five recently accepted jobs with Electronic Arts' new Montreal studio.

The clause limits the ability for those who sign it to work in the North American game industry for a period of one year after leaving the company. Informed sources say that in the seven years Ubisoft has maintained a Montreal studio, it has not previously enforced the clause.

While Ubisoft confirms it is indeed seeking to enforce the non-compete clause through legal channels, it refused to elaborate on the litigation today. When contacted, Martin Carrier, Ubisoft Montreal's director of communications and public affairs, confirmed there was ongoing litigation between the companies but added, "Because it's in the courts, there is not a lot to say."

Electronic Arts, on the other hand, is adamant that the litigation--which is being brought against the five former employees and Electronic Arts, according to court documents--will set an unfortunate precedent, preventing creative talent from seeking jobs of their choice, unfettered by what it says are restrictive, possibly illegal clauses in employment agreements.

"This legal action basically destroys their careers. They either have to move out of Montreal or work at McDonald's for a year," said Jeff Brown, Electronic Arts vice president of corporate communications. "It seems that Ubisoft thinks of Montreal as a plantation--any worker who dares to escape the Ubisoft plantation will be hunted down by lawyers and forced out of business."

The five individuals, all former members of the Splinter Cell team, resigned from Ubisoft earlier this summer and subsequently accepted job offers with Electronic Arts Montreal. EA had announced earlier its intent to expand operations and open a Montreal studio.

The former Ubisoft employees are, for the moment, able to work for the new EA studio. An upcoming court hearing, however, scheduled to take place October 6, will determine whether the five will be allowed to continue to work while the larger issue of whether or not the non-compete clause is legal is determined. Legal proceedings that address that larger issue are not expected to conclude until December of 2003 or January of 2004.

According to Electronic Arts, Ubisoft initially joined in the chorus of Montreal businesses who welcomed the US-based video game giant. EA is no stranger to doing business in Canada. It already has two operations located in British Columbia, Canada, specifically its Vancouver and Burnaby studios, and two of EA's most senior corporate staff are Canadian--president of EA worldwide studios, Don Mattrick, and executive vice president of worldwide studios, Bruce McMillan.

When contacted today by phone in Montreal, newly appointed EA Montreal general manager, Alain Tascan, himself a former Ubisoft employee hired by Electronic Arts in June, commented that Montreal, with its universities, its already robust tech community, and its melting-pot urban energy, was a natural choice for Electronic Arts. Tascan said his focus is on "creating the next big franchises" for Electronic Arts.

Expressing his displeasure at Ubisoft's tactics, wherein employees would have to wait a full year after leaving the company before accepting work with any other North American game concern, Tascan said, "It comes down to producing work every day, every month. If anyone stops working for a year [in this industry], they'll be in trouble."

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