You Don’t Know Jack: Alex Benepe on Warner Bros. and Quidditch

By Jack Lennard

Twice a month in You Don’t Know Jack, I’ll be writing out some thoughts in a regular column here on the Quidditch Post. I’ll be using my experience in administration and management to break down some of the bigger trends and issues in quidditch, looking at the wider, global scale of how the sport is developing.

About the author: Jack Lennard is the founder and Director of the Quidditch Premier League. He has previously been the COO of the Quidditch Post and currently works in public relations. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Quidditch Post as a whole.

I’m currently in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is an awfully long way from home – over 5,000 miles, to be precise. It’s a 10 hour flight out to Arizona, and on that flight I was able to do a lot of thinking. As we flew over the frozen wastelands of northern Canada, I noticed that it had begun to get light again outside, despite the fact that we left after the sun had set in the United Kingdom. Our aeroplane, by virtue of the earth’s curvature, was literally outrunning the sunset.

And as I sat there, and thought, and tried to understand just why it is that Adam Sandler continues to be given funding for films that get featured on in-flight entertainment systems, I wondered what we as a sport have been trying to outrun. The answer is obvious; it’s the looming spectre of Warner Bros. and the ownership of the concept of quidditch. As hard as we try, that shadow looms over us, and as long as we continue to ignore it, our sport will be constrained by it.

Which is why it is so baffling that nobody until now has actually set out where we as a sport stand with the behemoth that is Warner Bros. Nobody has written an extensive article about it, nobody has made a public briefing; in fact, more and more there is a build-up of rumours surrounding what we can and can’t do. One memorable social media commentator even suggested that ‘we can do what we like so long as we use a lowercase q’. That claim is in no way accurate, incidentally.

So I spoke to someone who knows the situation better than anyone in quidditchAlex Benepe, the sport’s founder and currently a Board member for the IQA.

Alex Benepe, founder of quidditch and current IQA Board member | Photo credit: Isabella Gong Photography

Jack Lennard: Thanks for agreeing to speak to me about what’s clearly a pretty difficult subject – it’s certainly something we like to avoid discussing as a sport.
Alex Benepe: I should come clean and say this – a big part of why I left running US Quidditch full time after co-founding the sport 12 years ago was that I was tired of trying to solve this puzzle and felt that my future was limited if I could not solve it. My time more removed from the sport has helped me see our options to move forward more clearly, and I have also watched the sport mature and grow on its own in bold new directions. I believe the sport is ready now to take a big step to solve the puzzle. But the first step to solving a problem that is impacting a group is to speak openly and candidly about it and being unafraid to have tough conversations. I hope this article gets people talking and focused on creating the best possible future for our sport.

JL: So who owns the trademark of ‘quidditch’? What else do they own – ‘snitch’, ‘bludger’, etc.? Is it just the word, or the imagery too? Is it a global ownership, or are there different rules for each region?
AB: Quidditch is a trademarked term owned by Warner Bros., with JK Rowling keeping approval rights. Words within the sport are not trademarked specifically, but generally when a trademark owner is a really big company and the trademark is really valuable, it’s not a good idea to mess around with related terms. Trademark law differs by country and trademarks need to be registered in different countries. However, I do not believe it would be a smart idea to attempt to use the quidditch mark anywhere in a manner against Warner Bros.’ wishes (even if we technically legally could in a few smaller countries) if we want the sport to succeed everywhere. I’m pretty confident their trademarks carry in many or most IQA countries. I’ve consulted many lawyers over the years who would agree with this statement: that Warner Bros. clearly owns the rights in almost all major classes for the term and we would not be able to deny that in court.

JL: And what do Warner Bros. let us do? What can’t we do?
AB: Warner Bros. has been remarkably permissive since I first reached out to them in 2008 to find out if they would work with us or what they would allow. They could have forbidden our use of the name whatsoever or asked us to stop operations completely. They allow operating as a non-profit league, selling memberships, selling event tickets, and accepting donations. They do not allow corporate sponsorships at a league level (such as competition naming rights), although they do permit small local sponsors for teams. They also do not allow the selling of merchandise that says ‘quidditch’ on it, or operating as a for profit entity which includes getting investors. It was really generous and open-minded of Warner Bros. to let us do what they allow us to, and I understand why they won’t permit these other things – they could impact the Harry Potter brand, and the Harry Potter brand is way bigger than we are currently. We would have to have a licensing deal to get access to those, but that comes with a lot of strings attached that are probably not good for the entire sport to fall under.

JL: The licensing option sounds intriguing. What would we need to do to get full access to the brand of quidditch?
AB: I learned from meeting with Warner Bros. that a license is really complicated for anyone to get, particularly a quidditch league. Out of respect for their inner workings I don’t want to go into too much detail here but I can summarize briefly as follows:

1: Companies like Warner Bros. usually work with the biggest and most experienced companies for licensing. As a new and unproven company we would have to pay a lot up front and guarantee a lot in revenue that we would be legally bound to pay. These are pretty common licensing structures.

2: Normally licenses are pretty simple – put a logo on something and sell it. A sports league has a ton of moving parts like rules, events, digital content, merchandise, food and beverage sales, sponsorships, team management, and so on. Warner Bros. and JK Rowling have to approve literally everything that happens in advance. You can see that attention to detail in the quality of the work that they produce. That takes a huge amount of time and work and cost on their parts. It also means we would have to totally change our operations and have all teams globally approve all their social media through higher-ups, just as one example. Just imagine all the things that happen on a team or match or event or league level – now imagine all of that needing approval through one channel before it could happen.

JL: Not great. So what alternatives do we have to licensing?
AB: I think the sport has two paths to consider:

1: Unite all the leagues under one corporate for profit entity that controls and owns everything and get a license for that entity. That entity would need experienced business operators from outside the community owning it and a lot of investor funding. That path is higher risk, potentially higher reward, but would be incredibly hard, maybe even impossible, and would change the entire culture and structure of the sport. It would have pretty big consequences if it failed.

2: Change the name of the sport and all terminology within it. Our sport is already moving into its own realm. Let’s prove it is a true sport and create and define its own branding. Our rules are already significantly different and more complex than the books – the rulebook we wrote looks nothing like “Quidditch Through The Ages” except for the names. This would also be easier on Warner Bros. as they would not have to police us. They appreciate fans, but the way trademark law works is that you can lose a trademark if you are clearly aware of specific infringement but do not take action against it. Right now they are in a difficult position of wanting to encourage fan activity without hurting their own business. With our own name, we could branch out into sponsors and merchandise better which is a major untapped category for us and remove the glass ceiling currently imposed on the sport.

If we are successful in shifting the sport to a new name, I think one small “professional” style league like the Quidditch Premier League or Major League Quidditch could potentially get a license (and be the only ones using the word ‘quidditch’) with the right business model, investor backing, and professional leadership team. No offense, but every league is very young and lacks the kind of experience that a company like Warner Bros. would need to see in a licensee straight up. They could then use the name quidditch and use Harry Potter marks/branding. This is not to say that current leaders couldn’t have a place at the table but we would need to add in some gray hair with the right backgrounds and business experience. This would sort of be a “pilot”. If it works well, perhaps Warner Bros. would see more of the business upside and we could more equitably place more leagues and the sport under a license. In the meantime, the unlicensed leagues under different names and probably with different rules could be “feeder leagues” into a more NFL style official licensed league, sort of like how youth football leagues have nothing to do with the NFL or use its name but help create future players and fans for the NFL.

However, I think it’s important we don’t put all our eggs in the license basket. For the sport to survive and thrive we should be pursuing a diverse range of options simultaneously. We would have to be aware though that any licensed quidditch league would need to really swing pretty hard in the Harry Potter world in their branding, and Warner Bros. and JK Rowling would need to approve everything they do pretty much. It would be very, very different from how we run things now.

JL: Where does JK Rowling come into it?
AB: JK Rowling has at times voiced support for quidditch which I think quidditch fans really love (I know I really appreciated it), but has never spoken to us directly, only through agents or her social media. She retains approval rights on everything and can create new content but she does not technically legally own Harry Potter any more. That puts her in a tricky position too.

JL: How long have you been meeting with Warner Bros. for?
AB: I first spoke to Warner Bros. representatives in 2008 and would check in on the phone or by email from time to time over the years. I met with a group of them in 2013. They are really kind and enthusiastic people, and they like what we are doing. They built a really fair compromise system for us to operate without a license – but it’s not good enough for the sport in the long term.

JL: Have WB ever come down on us for breaking the rules?
AB: There have been a couple times where there was a misunderstanding on our parts and Warner Bros. reached out to warn us and we either corrected it immediately or discussed the issue and came to an agreement. They’ve always been conversational and approachable with us.

JL: What opportunities have you seen quidditch organisations have to forgo because of the restrictions on the sport?
AB: I have had conversations with larger brands about sponsorship opportunities just for research purposes. They have often expressed interest but cannot commit to a large sponsorship without us having a license. I think it’s really important to point out that if we do change our name and terminology, we’re not going to suddenly see sponsors lining up around the block for us. And part of the name recognition of quidditch could go away. But I don’t think Harry Potter is still the biggest driving factor in the sports growth. I believe we are mostly growing through the quality of our sport and community and the great word of mouth from player to player, inspiring others to start new teams. Changing the name is definitely a mature, long term approach to ensuring a solid future for our sport. That said, I accept that we might not see the pay off for awhile.

JL: Given all of this, what would you personally advocate we do as a sport?
AB: I would advocate for changing the name and seeing how we can grow on our own. I love Harry Potter and always will, but if our sport needs Harry Potter to survive it must not be that great – and I believe that it is great and I think our players do too. I don’t think the change needs to happen immediately. It could be phased in slowly over a couple years. We would also want to plan it out carefully. If we want to pursue a license in some way, shape, or form in the future, we will be in a much better position if we do not need a license and instead have found real financial success for the sport on our own already. As an IQA Board member, I have already brought this issue before Congress and I can say that a majority of leaders there are really interested in exploring the concept. I am now working on a committee to analyze the opportunity further. I’d be happy for any player to message me directly on Facebook with questions or comments. In addition, if any threads pop up on this article I’ll do my best to respond there directly.

JL: Finally, let’s say we do change the name – any ideas on what we should call the sport?
AB: I think the IQA Congress should put out an open call for new name ideas to the entire community and a committee of Congress and the Board should narrow down the best options to a vote by the rest of congress.

*****

Well, there you have it. Certainly not a hopeless situation, but far from a cause for celebration. The simple fact is that, even as our sport grows, we are tightening the noose around our own necks. The more attention we draw to ourselves, the more opportunities that come our way, the less we can avoid a path that addresses the issue head-on.

Those were the thoughts that crossed my mind as I touched down in Arizona. A glance outside the window showed nothing but darkness. The night had caught up with us.