Gibson frets retailers with Guitar Hero patent suit

Instrument maker files suit against vendors to keep Activision's rhythm game off store shelves; publisher says case stems from refusal to renew support.

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As one of the most lucrative franchises in gaming, Activision's Guitar Hero franchise has acted as a lightning rod for litigation and lawsuits. Last week alone, the popular rhythm game inspired two suits, one involving former Guitar Hero developers Harmonix and the other concerning content licensor Gibson Guitar Inc. While the former was settled as suddenly and quickly as it was filed, the latter continues to linger on.

In a letter sent to Activision in January, Gibson alleged that the Guitar Hero franchise infringes upon a patent the music instrument manufacturer filed in 1999 for "technology for simulating a musical performance." As per Gibson's patent, the product involves using instruments to simulate a live performance, and provides for a 3D headset with stereo speakers and a prerecorded concert using instruments to simulate a live performance. Gibson subsequently requested that Activision "obtain a license under Gibson's...patent or halt sales of any version of the 'Guitar Hero' game software."

Taking umbrage with this claim, Activision filed suit in the US District Court of Central California, asking the court to invalidate Gibson's patent and prevent the guitar maker from seeking damages. Today, Gibson has responded in kind to Activision's legal wrangling, regretfully announcing that it had brought suit against a number of retailers that it claims are selling the allegedly patent-infringing Guitar Hero products.

"On Monday, March 17, Gibson Guitar Corp. brought a lawsuit against various retailers, which are selling Guitar Hero products that are infringing on one of Gibson Guitar's U.S. patents," reads Gibson's statement. "Gibson Guitar took this action reluctantly, but is required to protect its intellectual property and will continue to do so against any other person in accordance with the law and its rights."

"Gibson had tried to settle this issue by negotiating directly with Activision as soon as the patent filed through one of Gibson's divisions was discovered and validated by outside counsel," the statement continued. "Activision chose to initiate litigation without notice to Gibson. Now, Gibson must pursue enforcement of its patent which predates the launch of the Guitar Hero game by several years."

While Activision wasn't party to Gibson's suit, the megapublisher was quick to respond, once again dismissing Gibson's claims and saying it would continue to support its retail partners.

"Gibson's lawsuit is a transparent end run around an impartial court that Activision asked on March 11 to rule on patent assertions that Gibson knows have no merit," reads Activision's statement. "Our Guitar Hero retailing partners have done nothing wrong. We will confront this and any other efforts by Gibson to wrongfully interfere with Activision's relationship with its customers and its consumers."

Activision also reiterated what it believes to be the cause for the abruptly soured relations with Gibson, saying the guitar maker has raised is patent infringement claims after three years due to the fact that "Activision was not interested in renewing its marketing and support agreement with Gibson."

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