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Gibson Loses Guitar Hero Lawsuit

Activision struck gold with the US District Court today, as Gibson's frivolous lawsuit concerning Guitar Hero was ruled in favor of Activision.

There's nothing sweeter than game developers and publishers emerging as the winner in lawsuits, especially when allegations are downright ridiculous. Although many of those said battles are somewhat entertaining -especially when ex-attorney Jack Thompson managed to get involved- sometimes it seems that advocates and businesses spark trouble just to cash in on the success of the accused rather than offer valid cases against said parties.

Gibson's complaint against Activision and the Guitar Hero franchise is a great example. Originally, Gibson accused Activision of infringing on its "simulating a musical performance" patent, and requested that the company obtain a license or halt sales of Guitar Hero and its "instrument controllers." However, Activision turned around and filed a lawsuit asking the US District Court of Central California to invalidate the 1999 patent. Moreover, Gibson's patent specifies that the action involves the use of an actual musical instrument that clearly the Guitar Hero controller -although shaped like a guitar- is NOT.

"A musician can simulate participation in a concert by playing a musical instrument and wearing a head-mounted 3D display that includes stereo speakers," Gibson's patent reads. "Audio and video portions of a musical concert are pre-recorded, along with a separate sound track corresponding to the musical instrument played by the musician."

In retaliation to Activision's lawsuit, Gibson turned around and went on a wild suing spree, filing lawsuits against six retail outlets back in March 2008 including Walmart, Kmart, Target, GameStop and more for selling Guitar Hero products. Gibson also went after Electronic Arts, MTV and Harmonix in regards to the Rock Band franchise which -Gibson claims- also infringes on its patent. Although the Rock Band outcome has yet to finalize, Activision scored a big winner today in its case against Gibson that may very well trickle down to Electronic Arts and Harmonix.

The court determined (PDF) that Guitar Hero does not infringe on Gibson's patent because the guitar-shaped controllers are merely toys that represent other items, and actually do not create music. The court also decided that Gibson's patent only applies to virtual instruments that solely provide analog audio output, and doesn't apply to MIDI outputs. "The Guitar Hero controllers do not infringe because they do not produce instrument audio signals within the meaning of the ’405 Patent," reads the 26-page verdict. The judgment goes on to specify that the Guitar Hero controllers are more like manipulating a virtual reality device than the "actual musical instrument" phrased in Gibson's patent.

Of course, Gibson disagreed. "Gibson struggles to argue that superficial resemblance to a musical instrument, together with the fact that the game console to which the controllers provide input to consoles that produce indisputably “musical” sounds, makes the controllers 'musical instruments' for purposes of the ’405 Patent," the judgment said. However, as previously stated, the court ruled that the controllers were more of a "virtual reality" origin than an actual musical instrument.

Still, Gibson has the legal right to appeal, and may very well do so. The court deemed Gibson's "doctrine of equivalents arguments" as borderline frivolous. With that said, perhaps the Guitar Hero drama will finally be put to rest. Is this a good sign for the Rock Band franchise? Hopefully, Gibson will drop that lawsuit in light of recent rulings, but as previous game-related lawsuits have shown, more than likely the drama isn't quite over just yet.