Guitar manufacturer takes licks
PATENT DISPUTE: The court ruled Activision did not infringe on Gibson's patent

Virtual reality was taken to a new level recently when famous guitar manufacturer, Gibson, sued Activision Publishing, Inc., creators of Guitar Hero, alleging that the video game system infringed upon one of its patents.

Specifically, Gibson Guitar Corp. registered U.S. Patent No. 5,990,405 in 1999. This patent covered,"a system and method for generating and controlling a simulated musical concert experience."

In 2006, Gibson licensed to Activision certain Gibson trademarks for use within the Guitar Hero game.

In January 2008, Activision received a letter from Gibson stating that though the game maker had permission to use Gibson's trademark, it did not have permission to use Gibson's patent for simulated musical performances. The letter requested that "Activision obtain a licence under Gibson's 405 patent or halt sales of any version of the Guitar Hero game software . . . and . . . instrument controllers."

Activision instead filed a pre-emptive request with the court for a declaration that its top-selling video game did not infringe on Gibson's patent. Gibson responded to Activision by filing a suit of its own.

In Activision Publishing Inc. vs Gibson Guitar Corp., decided Feb. 26, 2009, the California District Court dismissed the lawsuit and held that Activision had not infringed upon Gibson's patent. The court made its opinion of the case clear when it held that the allegations brought forth by Gibson, "border on the frivolous."

Throughout the case, Gibson tried to argue that their patent was infringed and even went as far as to say that, "the '405 Patent covers any system where a user controls something 'musical' with any device."

The court rejected the argument stating that, "by arguing that any sound made by any controller can potentially be musical, Gibson would have everything in the world -- from the buttons of a DVD remote, to a pencil tapping a table -- be an 'actual musical instrument' within the '405 Patent."

Ultimately, the court refused to give the term "musical instrument" such a broad interpretation and instead held that, "no reasonable person of ordinary skill in the relevant arts would interpret the '405 Patent as covering interactive video games."

The motivation for the lawsuit may be found in the pre-existing relationship between Gibson and Activision. Industry insiders have suggested that Activision's decision not to renew the Gibson trademark licence was the motivating factor behind the lawsuit.

In fact, Activision itself, in a letter dated Match 10, 2008, suggested that, "Gibson knew about the Guitar Hero games for nearly three years, but did not raise its patent until it became clear that Activision was not interested in renewing the Licenses and Marketing Support Agreement."

Whatever the motivation, the California District Court made it clear that the lawsuit was without merit. This decision has now put into question several other outstanding lawsuits Gibson had also commenced against various companies involved in the creation and distribution of Guitar Hero, such as MTV, Harmonix, Electronic Arts, Wal-Mart, Target and K-mart.

David Canton is a business lawyer and trademark agent with a technology focus at Harrison Pensa LLP. This article, written with the assistance of Sarah Graham, contains general comments only, not legal advice. Contact David at 519-661-6776 or

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