Patent war could defeat Guitar Hero

Gibson Guitar Corp. is engaging in a series of patent disputes that amount to a battle of the make-b
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Gibson Guitar Corp. is engaging in a series of patent disputes that amount to a battle of the make-believe bands, and the local developer of a “Guitar Hero” video game could get caught in the crossfire.

Gibson, the Nashville, Tenn., musical instrument manufacturer, on Friday broadened its efforts to block sales of the popular “Guitar Hero” series. The series consists of guitar-playing simulation games for an array on platforms including Sony’s PlayStation 2 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360.

In a federal court in Nashville, Gibson filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Harmonix Music Systems in Cambridge, Mass., MTV Networks in New York and Electronic Arts in Redwood City, Calif.

Gibson is also attempting to prevent retailers from selling “Guitar Hero” games. In the Nashville court last week, Gibson sued six national retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores, Target Corp. and Toys-R-Us. The guitar maker alleges those companies are inducing acts of patent infringement by selling the games.

Gibson alleges Harmonix’s “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band” games infringe on its 9-year-old patent for a system and method for “generating and controlling simulated musical concert experiences.” Gibson is seeking unspecified damages and demanding the companies stop infringing on its patent.

Earlier this year, the guitar maker made similar demands on Activision, the Santa Monica, Calif., video game giant. Activision is the parent of Menands creative studio Vicarious Visions, which developed “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” for Nintendo’s Wii.

In a Jan. 7 letter, a Gibson attorney said Activision must either obtain a license under the guitar maker’s patent or halt the sale of “Guitar Hero’s” software and instrument controllers.

“During operation, the Guitar Hero enables control of characteristics of the audio for the simulated musical concert as required by the claims of the [Gibson] patent,” Gibson attorney F. Leslie Bessinger III said in the January letter to Activision Vice President of Legal and Business Affairs Greg Deutch.

Activision countered Gibson’s infringement claims with a lawsuit filed two weeks ago in a Los Angeles federal court. Activision is seeking a declaratory judgement saying it did not infringe upon Gibson’s patent. Because Gibson has long been aware of the “Guitar Hero” series and encouraged its manufacturing and sales, Activision claims it has an “implied license” under the guitar maker’s patent.

Neither Activision or Gibson have identified Vicarious in court documents. However, the retailer suit identifies Wii’s “Guitar Hero III,” which Vicarious developed and Activision released last October. Activision, Vicarious and Gibson representatives did not immediately return calls seeking comment Monday.

It is not clear how the patent dispute will affect Vicarious, which Activision acquired in 2005. The Menands creative studio’s game production activities go far beyond “Guitar Hero.” In recent years, it has created for Activision the “Spider Man 2,” “Spider Man 3,” “Marvel Ultimate Alliance” and “Doom III” games.

Brothers Guha and Karthik Bala founded Vicarious in 1994 in their Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute dorm room. The company two years ago relocated over 100 workers from the Rensselaer Technology Park in North Greenbush to a 37,000-square-foot space in the Riverview Center on Broadway in Menands.

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