Kelsey Devois thought a childhood dream came true when she received an email from an American publishing company expressing interest in a board game she had been crafting since she was 12 years old.
But the Abbotsford woman’s dream turned into a three-year nightmare that only ended on Nov. 12, the day she walked into The People’s Court – reality TV’s small claims court.
“I was so nervous, I was shaking,” Devois said. “For hours [before], I’m just dying because I don’t know how it’s going to go… It was nerve-racking.”
When Devois logged on to her Kickstarter account in early 2017 and read an enthusiastic email offering a partnership from Marc Goldner, the founder and CEO of Golden Bell Studios, she thought a decade-long passion project might have a chance to make it to the board-game big leagues.
“WOW! We’ve been scouring the internet for some great games to partner up with, and this caught our eye immediately. We loved your campaign and honestly just every aspect of it,” Goldner’s email reads.
The idea behind Devois’s game, The Recipe Game, came from baking with her mother from a young age. It slowly turned into a serious project over the next decade. Devois hired a Brazilian graphic artist for the design, built a relationship with a Chinese manufacturing company, and financed the first 300 copies herself for exposure at local trade shows.
Enticed to sign
When she received Goldner’s email, Devois’s sales at the trade shows were limited and her Kickstarter page hadn’t raised enough money to manufacture more games.
“I love the aspect of creating it, designing it and having manufactured,” Devois said. “But to sell it, there just wasn’t a passion there.”
The company sent a contract asking Devois to give up half her copyright and full trademark rights to the game, in exchange for Golden Bell financing the game’s manufacture. Devois would receive a share of net profits.
Devois worried about surrendering her trademark forever, and her lawyer suggested changes to the contract, but Golden Bell wouldn’t budge.
But she was able to insert a clause that would entitle her to $500 if no copies were sold within two years. She also received permission from Goldner to sell her remaining copies of the game.
Golden Bell promised a “large distribution network.” For Devois, the idea of her game reaching audiences outside of the local trade-show circuit was too appealing to turn down. She signed the contract in May 2017.
A Notorious Company
Golden Bell Studios – also known as Golden Studios, Golden Bell Entertainment and Golden Bell Productions – had three lawsuits filed against it in 2019. Plaintiffs have alleged that the company breached contracts and engaged in fraud and libel, and they are seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.
But in 2017, the company hadn’t yet developed a notorious reputation in the crowdfunding and board game community. Over the past year, dozens of posts on popular websites like Boardgamegeek and Reddit warn creators and crowdfunders about the company’s “predatory contracts” and “shady business tactics coupled with childish and passive-aggressive (and even outright aggressive) behaviour.”
Many of these posts cite the exact same email that Devois initially received from Goldner. The lawsuits against Goldner and Golden Bell Studios make similar claims. They remain before the courts and the claims have not been proven.
Over the next two years, Devois received little communication from the company and became increasingly frustrated.
Devois would periodically email Goldner to check in on the status of her game. She said she was confused as to why the game was not listed anywhere on Golden Bell’s website.
She received only one response: a “confusing” email stating the company was exploring licensing with a Japanese company and adding a “ramen element.”
When the two-year deadline expired for the $500 clause in the contract, she sent an email requesting payment. Two days later she received a response from Goldner.
Devois was told to “take a step back and talk reality.”
“No lawyer in their right mind is going to waste time on a game that made less than $200 on Kickstarter,” Goldner wrote. “We aren’t afraid of attorneys, Kelsey, I work with them everyday. No need to come in with a grenade.”
Goldner says he is in law school and alludes to it frequently in his correspondence with Devois.
Devois said she wasn’t seeking her trademark back. She wrote to Goldner that it wasn’t her intention to be confrontational but she hadn’t received any response to her previous queries and felt a direct message was necessary.
Goldner responded that he was terminating the contract and she wouldn’t be paid anything.
“If you want to get another party involved for $500 I can tell you on principal alone I’d pay thousands to not give you a dollar if that’s your motivation,” he said. “We can part ways amicably or we can fight for fun and pay lawyers. Your call.”
But the $500 wasn’t the only thing on Devois’s mind when she filed a claim in a New York state small claims court on Oct. 12, 2019.
“I was like OK, if you’re going to play this game, this is personal to me,” Devois said. “They [were] just pretending like it’s nothing because it’s not their game.”
When Goldner saw a suit had been filed, he sent a threatening email to Devois telling her to get her “head out of the clouds.”
“You need a reality check. Don’t fight with fire, you’ll get burned. I could counter-sue you for wrongful suit. Learn the law.”
The People’s Court
Three days later, The People’s Court emailed Devois asking her if she wanted to have the claim resolved on camera.
The showroom court is the third-highest-rated court show in the U.S. and presided over by retired Florida State judge Marilyn Milian. The show’s format requires both parties to sign a binding contract stating no lawyers are allowed to be present and that Milian’s ruling is final. In exchange, they are given free transportation and lodging. The show also promises to pay any financial costs from the decision.
Devois was flown out to New York for her appearance on Nov. 12. She said the format was very loose, with little direction beyond which side of the court to stand on.
The cameras started rolling almost immediately, a production member calling out, “And action!”
Judge Milian walked into the courtroom and asked Devois to tell her side of the story first.
Goldner followed, and tried to argue that he never gave Devois permission to sell her remaining copies of the game. Milian wasn’t buying it, according to Devois.
“She said, ‘The email’s right here with your name on it!’” Devois said. “[Milian] was so energetic and passionate about it. [She said], ‘You know what? You’re wrong. You’re the one that breached the contract!’”
Milian ruled that, because Goldner terminated the contract and refused to pay Devois $500, he was the offending party. She also ruled that because Goldner prematurely ended the deal, Devois was entitled to the rights back to her game.
“When I heard that, I was so excited, because that’s not even what I went to court for,” Devois said. “But here I am with my money and my game rights back.”
CEO fights to have episode pulled
Devois doesn’t know why Goldner accepted the show’s invitation, but his emails threatening litigation against her, Judge Milian and the show’s producers suggest he regrets the decision.
“Just to let you know you don’t have the rights to the game,” Goldner wrote. “The Judge erred and [made] a wrong ruling. You can’t have the money AND the rights back. I’m in law school Kelsey.”
Goldner goes on to allege Devois perjured herself and falsified documents.
He sent another email to the show’s producers claiming that he was tricked into a “dog and pony show… out to make us look like fools.” Goldner alleged that “hundreds and hundreds of pages” of evidence were ignored, and that he and his guests were intimidated by show security and could even claim false imprisonment. He wrote that Milian’s behavior amounted to an abuse of power that could have her sanctioned and disbarred.
But Goldner wrote that he is willing to let all of these charges go – along with the rights to the game – if he is guaranteed the show will not air.
Devois received assurance from Larry Verbit, a lawyer representing The People’s Court, that the issue has been resolved and she should refrain from any future correspondence with Goldner.
“In the event he ill-advisedly proceeds with any action… we will send a representative from the production as a witness in support of the final and binding contract to which you both agreed,” Verbit said. “I can tell you that in the last 23 years, in the extremely rare times a disgruntled litigant has tried to pursue their claim through further litigation, that person lost and our final and binding arbitration has been found valid and binding.”
Goldner’s legal threats to the show were successful in one aspect. Because the initial suit was only for $500, Devois was informed the show would be retracting the ruling granting her trademark rights back and could only rule on the initial claim. But she was told that any other court would recognize that Goldner “sealed his fate” when he terminated the contract.
At this point, though, the CEO seems to care more about his public image than the rights.
Goldner’s most recent email to Devois contained no threats, and promised to let go of the trademark in any future legal proceedings, “if we can all agree to tell People’s Court not to air the segment.”
Devois never responded.
The episode is set to air in April 2020.