A long-running conflict between the Montreal studios of major publishers Electronic Arts and Ubisoft over non-compete clauses for departing Ubisoft game development employees has again flared to life, following the hiring of an unnamed former Ubisoft employee to work at EA's Montreal studio.
Electronic Arts representatives have provided Gamasutra with a copy of a letter sent by EA Montreal head Alain Tascan to Ubisoft Montreal head Martin Tremblay accompanying the news of the hiring, despite a one year non-compete agreement signed by that employee when working at Ubisoft, and which asks Ubisoft to "stop the illegitimate practice of forcing talented people to sign employment contracts that restrict their creative and economic freedom."
The controversy last came to a head in late 2003, with a Canadian court case brought by Ubisoft against EA for hiring away four major Spinter Cell developers to work at the (at that time newly formed) Electronic Arts Montreal Studio. In that case, Ubisoft won an interim injunction preventing the employees from working at EA within a specified length of time after leaving, and an Ubisoft spokesperson commented to Reuters at the time: "It's pretty much what we expected that the Quebec Court of Appeal would say, that the 'non-compete' clause is reasonable... It's standard in the industry, in Montreal and in Canada."
However, EA's Tascan and the company's management are obviously keen to revisit this ruling, commenting to Ubisoft in its letter: "As you know, the judgment of the Court of Appeal in our last dispute was on an interim basis only and did not decide this issue on the merits. We therefore do not consider it as the final word on this matter."
Electronic Arts continues by making the point that it feels non-compete agreements are excessive: "Ubi Soft is one of the few companies in the Quebec game industry that forces its employees to sign non-compete clauses", continuing: "Ubi Soft has no legitimate interests to protect that cannot be fully protected by confidentiality undertakings. Moreover, the games on which these people work are protected by other legal means, such as copyright. Therefore, a confidentiality undertaking is more than sufficient to protect the business interests of Ubi Soft."
Elsewhere in the letter, EA's Tascan reveals a number of potentially controversial points, particularly relating to the significant subsidies given to Ubisoft, above even those of other game companies, for adding employees in Quebec: "The restrictive covenants Ubi Soft forces its employees to sign are contrary to spirit of the salary grants and employment incentives that Quebec offers to our industry. Ubi Soft receives grants from the Quebec government representing 50 percent of the wages of its employees whereas grants provided to other developers are only equivalent to about 37 percent."
The letter concludes by revealing: "In the spirit of creative freedom, economic emancipation and workers’ rights, EA has in fact accepted the application of an employee who had been working at Ubi Soft... Using government money to lock talent into contracts that prohibit them from moving to new projects is an affront to creative freedom, limits consumer choice and stifles the growth of the multi-media industry in Quebec."
EA's statement presumably gives Ubi Soft the opportunity to mount a similar challenge to 2003's legal tussle, should the company wish, although the latter firm has not yet made a formal statement on the matter. For its part, EA makes it clear that it "shall continue to require that its employees sign a declaration stating that they shall not use any material or documents of a former employer", a move that it clearly feels is acceptable and sufficient in a locality which has only a limited amount of major development firms.