Sunday, July 10th, 2011...6:37 pm

“Panini vs. Art of the Game: You Think You Have Kobe’s Autograph, But You Have No Idea…”

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By Nathan Yu

What do you get if you cross the NBA’s biggest star, Kobe Bryant, with a couple of sports memorabilia companies? A lawsuit, of course…

Back on May 9, Panini America, a sports and entertainment collectibles company, sued The Art of the Game, one of Panini’s competitors, for, among other causes of action, trademark infringement and false advertising. According to Panini, on September 1, 2009, Panini and Kobe entered into an agreement that granted Panini a four-year exclusive right to “use [Kobe’s] name, nicknames, voice, likeness…on and in connection with the manufacture, packaging…sale, and general endorsement of…” trading cards, posters, and other memorabilia. Simply, Kobe cannot sign memorabilia for anyone else, other than Panini, that intends to sell/promote that memorabilia. And here’s where we have a problem…

A Panini representative was at Staples Center for a Lakers game one day and walked to a memorabilia booth operated by The Art of the Game. At the booth, The Art of the Game (AOTG) displayed a photo that was signed by Kobe (and Blake Griffin). According to the Complaint, the AOTG salesman told the Panini rep that the signature was authentic, obtained from Kobe, and that AOTG has an exclusive license agreement with Kobe. The Panini rep bought the photo.

Later, Panini sent a private investigator to the same booth. The investigator bought a Black Mamba movie poster signed by Kobe. Again, according to the filing, the investigator claimed that a different salesman spoke of the authenticity of the signature and of AOTG’s exclusive agreement with Kobe.

Panini’s lawsuit alleges that the autographed items were not signed by Kobe and that AOTG deliberately misrepresents the memorabilia as having authentic signatures, all while knowing that they are fake.  They seek damages, a permanent injunction against AOTG from selling/marketing Kobe items, and all profits from Kobe-signed items.

In its defense, AOTG claims that the signatures are authentic, and in their most recent motion, AOTG provides a signed affidavit from Kobe that swears that he signed the items. To me, everything checks out. When I came across this development (assuming it’s true), I immediately thought that Panini is suing the wrong person on a wrong cause of action. If Kobe admits to having signed those items, then the signatures are authentic; and if the signatures are authentic, what is Panini’s gripe? Well, it SHOULD be that Kobe breached his contract with Panini by signing items for The Art of the Game! In a VERY interesting revelation, Kobe’s declaration says that while he did sign the items, he did not sign them FOR The Art of the Game…I think it’s a very strategically placed prepositional clause.

Anyway, AOTG’s latest motion asks the judge to dismiss the Panini’s suit for a variety of reasons, one of them being that Panini, as a licensee and not the licensor, lacks standing. I haven’t studied intellectual property law, but the argument makes sense on its surface. The hearing date for the motion is set for September 5, so it’ll be awhile before we see the conclusion. But it will be interesting to see if Panini pursues any action against Kobe (highly doubtful in my estimation).

Nathan Yu is an incoming first-year law student at William and Mary, and can be reached at

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