The Grand Theft Auto games are some of the most popular pop-culture products in history, and that kind of success can often lead to “deception” and betrayal.
Leslie Benzies, who produced the Grand Theft Auto games as president of developer Rockstar North, is suing publisher Take-Two Interactive for what he claims is $150 million in royalties that the company never paid to him, according to a press release from the law firm Locke Lord, which represents Benzies. In response, Rockstar and Take-Two have filed a countersuit that claims Benzies was in breach of contract. In that filing, which you can read here (via Polygon), Take-Two claims it has “no further financial obligations to Benzies.” Grand Theft Auto V, which is the pertinent game to the royalty dispute, has surpassed 60 million copies shipped to retailers, and it has generated well over $2 billion in revenues. It is not only one of the most successful games ever released, but Take-Two has also repeatedly referred to it as “the fastest-selling entertainment product ever.”
Clearly, both Benzies and Take-Two were ready to lawyer-up, and that’s because this dispute has a long history that dates back years before either party filed their legal complaints. To help illuminate the details of this case, we’re going to build out the timeline of events based on public records as well as the filings of both Benzies and Take-Two. We’ll note where the two disagree on the details.
- September 17, 2013: Rockstar North, the studio where Leslie Benzies was the president, launches Grand Theft Auto V for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
- Late 2013: Rockstar vice president Jennifer Kolbe allegedly told Benzies that Rockstar president Sam Houser was worried that Benzies “wanted to take over the company.” This stemmed from Benzies placing his name last in the credits for GTA Online, which denotes the person most significant to a game’s production. Benzies also claims that Houser did not notice his name was not last until only after the game was released. “If true, this would mean that [Houser] had not played or even viewed the game prerelease,” reads Benzies’ complaint.
- July 29, 2014: Benzies flew to New York for a meeting with Sam Houser. Kolbe picks up Houser from the airport, and Benzies alleges that she suggested he take some time off. Benzies liked this idea because he had finished a several-year stretch building GTA V and GTA Online.
- August 15, 2014: Benzies signs agreement to take a paid sabbatical from September 1, 2014 through March 1, 2015. The agreement includes the following: “[Rockstar North] greatly appreciates your dedication to its business and products, and this sabbatical is meant to provide you with an opportunity to refocus those energies away from the company and to yourself for the period described below.” Benzies alleges the agreement claimed he would lose “no pay or benefits while on sabbatical.” Take-Two and Rockstar’s countersuit claims that the letter said Benzies would “continue to be eligible for any bonus, incentive compensation, other discretionary payments.” Take-Two’s lawyers added the emphasis in the preceding quote to suggest that the agreement did not guarantee Benzies any payments but only maintained his eligibility for discretionary payments that the company could decide not to award him.
- September 2014: Benzies claims that Rockstar shut off his company BlackBerry and locked him out of his email. When he requested access to his Rockstar email, the company rejected him. The producer also claims that Sam Houser stopped communicating with him at this time.
- September 2014 through March 2015: Benzies alleges that Sam Houser and Rockstar took steps to isolate him by terminating his key staff and refusing his access to any other colleagues besides Kolbe.
- December 2014: Rockstar’s “allocation committee” — a group that comprises Sam Houser, Dan Houser, and a Take-Two representative — decided not to award any profits to Benzies. The Housers did give themselves a share of the profits. This is the first time since enacting the royalty plan in 2009 that Benzies did not get an equal share of the profits, according to Benzies.
- February 2015: Benzies begins discussion over email with Kolbe to figure out how to handle his return from sabbatical. It is here that Benzies alleges Kolbe first informed him that Rockstar and the Housers did not want Benzies to return. Instead, Rockstar legal counsel proposed a severance package worth $1.7 million.
- March 2015: Benzies prepared to return to work on April 1 because Rockstar and Take-Two had not formally terminated him. Instead, Benzies claims that Sam Houser and Kolbe visited Rockstar North with the purpose of poisoning the studio for any possible return.
- March 23, 2015: Take-Two says it received a letter from Benzies demanding royalty payments equal to Sam Houser and Dan Houser. Benzies characterizes this letter as him indicating his excitement about returning to Rockstar North while also asking that Rockstar reinstate his email access and comply with his other requests.
- March 24, 2015: Benzies claims that Take-Two’s counsel told him not to return to work and that this effectively terminated his employment. Take-Two does not acknowledge this correspondence in its countersuit.
- March 26, 2015: Benzies claims that Take-Two then reversed that termination. Take-Two also does not acknowledge this in its countersuit.
- March 27 through March 31, 2015: Benzies’ claims it attempted to get clarification from Take-Two about whether the director should return to work on April 1. The attorneys claim that Take-Two never adequately provided a “yes” or “no” response. Instead, Kolbe requested to meet Benzies at a hotel. Take-Two does not acknowledge any of these correspondences.
- April 1, 2015: Benzies returned to Rockstar North’s offices. The office manager ordered Benzies to leave, and Benzies complied. Take-Two does not acknowledge this happening in its countersuit.
- April 2, 2015: Benzies’ counsel sent a notice of termination that cited Take-Two’s violation of his employee agreement and breach of the royalty agreement. This letter claims that Benzies had both good reason to terminate his employment and that Take-Two had essentially discharged him. Take-Two denies both of those claims.
- April 2015: Benzies claims that Rockstar, and Sam Houser in particular, threatened to justify ousting Benzies by holding him responsible for delays of GTA V and GTA: Online because he did not adequately perform his duties. In response to this, Benzies provided emails where Houser continually praised Benzies from 2013 through 2014.
- April 13, 2015: Take-Two claims it received a letter from Benzies demanding royalty payments.
- August 2015: Take-Two and Rockstar again decided not to award royalty payments to Benzies.
- January 2016: News reports begin claiming that Benzies had left Rockstar, Take-Two chief executive Strauss Zelnick then confirmed that in a statement.
- April 12, 2016: Benzies files lawsuit against Take-Two, Rockstar, Dan Houser, and Sam Houser. Take-Two and Rockstar file countersuit against Benzies.
- April 12, 2016: Benzies’ attorney tells GamesBeat that Take-Two’s claim is “sparse.”
We’ll continue following this case as it moves forward.