The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California has issued a ruling that Activision’s Guitar Hero franchise does not infringe on a 1999 Gibson patent covering simulating a musical performance using a 3D headset display and stereo speakers. As, it seems, with any legal action regarding guitar maker Gibson, the procedural path of the case has been rife with hiccups, mis-steps, and obstinacy, but the court has finally ruled that Guitar Hero is in the clear because “Guitar Hero controllers are toys that represent other items,” rather than being musical instruments themselves. Furthermore, the court found that Gibson’s patent applies only to virtual instruments that produce some sort of analog audio output: instruments which produce MIDI data aren’t covered.
The suit—which was always deemed a long shot by the industry—cleares a cloud from over the Guitar Hero franchise, as well as Harmonix’s Rock Band title which also uses virtual instruments—and which Gibson included in its suit almost a year ago. Guitar Hero had been on the market almost three years when Gibson brought its patent out of the closet and went after Activision in court—after the company had engaged in trademark licensing with Activition. Gibson’s participation in the court proceeding could perhaps be described as chaotic, with the company switching counsel, failing to participate in the discovery process, and at one point making a claim that any sound produced by only controller could potentially be musical—and therefore covered by its patent. However, Gibson also argued at one point that an unamplified electric guitar’s sounds are not musical.
Gibson may choose to appeal the ruling and continue to pursue enforcing its patent against Rock Band, but the initial response from industry watchers is the district court’s actions are likely the end of Gibson’s litigation. Of course, the status of Gibson’s relationship with Activision—which involved licensing classic Gibson guitar designs for use in Guitar Hero controllers—may no longer be on sound footing.