Innovention Toys LLC (“Innovention”) previously filed suit against MGA Entertainment Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Toys R Us Inc. for allegedly infringing U.S. Patent No. 7,264,242, (“the ‘242 patent”) entitled "Light Reflecting Board Game." As summarized by Judge Martin Feldman in his recent order, the ‘242 patent is directed towards a “chess-like board game in which opposing players shoot a laser beam at mirrored game pieces in order to reflect the beam in an attempt to strike (and thus eliminate from the game) an opponent's key playing piece.” MGA Entertainment Inc. (“MGA”) is the manufacturer of the Laser Game which is distributed through Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Toys R Us Inc. Innovention asserted that the Laser Game infringed independent claims 31, 39, 40, 41 and dependent claims 32, 33, 43, 44, 48, 49, 50, 53, and 54. One of the claims at issue, independent claim 39 recites:

A board game for two opposing players or teams of players
a game board, movable playing pieces having at least one
mirrored surface, movable key playing pieces having no
mirrored surfaces, and a laser source,
wherein alternate turns are taken to move playing pieces
for the purpose of deflecting laser beams, so as to
illuminate the key playing piece of the opponent.

MGA filed a motion for summary judgment of non-infringement and invalidity. As part of their non-infringement arguments, MGA asserted that the Laser Battle game cannot infringe the asserted claims of the ‘242 patent because not all the game pieces are "movable." Specifically, MGA argued that game pieces known as “Tower pieces” are intended to remain in a single space during the game. Innovention, the owner of the ‘242 patent filed cross-motions for summary judgment of infringement and validity.

On October 14, 2009, Judge Martin Feldman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana granted Innovation’s motions for summary judgment of infringement and validity. The court held that Laser Game was “virtually identical” to the asserted claims. Regarding the “movable” limitation, the court construed "movable" to mean "capable of movement as called for by the rules of the game or game strategy." The court determined that the “Tower pieces” were moveable because “even if the instructions suggest the pieces ‘should’ not so be moved, that capability is nevertheless present.” The decision inherently indicates that sizing the Tower pieces differently from the other pieces as to preclude movement to another position would likely have avoided a finding of infringement.

Regarding validity of the ‘242 patent, the court considered references that disclosed chess-like computer games using lasers. The court first determined that the claims were not anticipated. Regarding obviousness, the court first noted the higher standard required for a finding of invalidy in a motion of summary judgment and determined that the defendants “failed to provide convincing evidence that adapting a laser chess computer game to a physical board game was a design step well within the grasp of a person of ordinary skill in the relevant art, which they suggest is a layperson.”

One of the attorneys for the defendants indicated that they would be filing a motion for reconsideration. The case is: Innovention Toys LLC v. MGA Entertainment Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Toys R Us Inc., Civil Action No. 07-6510 (E.D. La.). We will follow this case.
Harmonix Music Systems, Inc., along with a host of game retailers, is asking a court in Tennessee to resume proceedings in a patent suit brought by Gibson Guitar Corporation over the "Guitar Hero" line of video games.

The suit was filed by Gibson in 2008, and alleged that the Guitar Hero games infringed U.S. Patent No. 5,990,405, entitled “System and Method for Generating and Controlling a Simulated Musical Concert Experience.” The claims in the patent were generally directed to simulating participation in a musical performance, and included the following language (claim 1) specifying a “musical instrument”:
a. a musical instrument, the musical instrument generating an instrument audio signal at an instrument audio output, the instrument audio signal varying in response to operation of the instrument by the user of the system;
Shortly after the suit was filed, it was stayed (e.g., placed on hold) because the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) had decided to open a reexamination proceeding to reconsider the validity of the patent. It is common for courts to stay cases pending reexamination, since the outcome of the reexamination can alter the patent’s scope (or render it invalid altogether).

During the PTO reexamination, the patentee altered the scope of the claim 1 “musical instrument” as follows:

a. a musical instrument adapted for (i) making musical sounds and (ii) generating an instrument audio signal representative of the musical sounds at an instrument audio output, the instrument audio signal comprising an electrical signal output by the musical instrument that varies in response to operation of the instrument by the user of the system;
This change was made after the PTO rejected the original claim as being the same as another U.S. patent (Zimmerman, U.S. Patent No. 5,488,196, entitled “Electronic Musical Re-Performance and Editing System”). The patentee argued that the Zimmerman patent did not show a musical instrument adapted for “making musical sounds” and “generating an instrument audio signal …” as recited in the new claim 1. The PTO agreed, and indicated that it will be issuing the reexamined patent with the new claim language.

Harmonix feels that the Guitar Hero game does not have the kind of “musical instrument” that will be required by the new claim 1. In its motion asking the court to lift the stay, Harmonix indicates that once the stay is lifted, it will file a motion for summary judgment that the Guitar Hero game does not infringe on this basis.

Harmonix also indicated that it will offer a second basis for summary judgment of non-infringement. That second basis comes from a California court’s ruling in another case involving Gibson and Activision, makers of the “Rock Band” game. In that case, the California court concluded that the Gibson patent simply did not cover interactive video games, and Harmonix will ask the Tennessee court to make a similar ruling.

So now we wait and see if/when the parties take the stage again. The motion to lift the stay seems likely to be granted, since the PTO reexamination proceedings are ending. Once the stay is lifted, we will likely see Harmonix’s summary judgment motion, and that may well signal the conclusion of this case. As a caveat, though, the patentee also added a number of new claims to the patent in the reexamination process, and some of those new claims don't have the "musical instrument" language quoted in claim 1. It remains to be seen whether those new claims become the new center of attention going forward.

The case is Gibson Guitar Corp. v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., et al., No. 3:08-0279 (M.D. Tenn.), and we’ll keep you posted as we learn more.
Sony Computer Entertainment America v. Bleem, LLC

214 F.3d 1022 (9th Cir. 2000)


Bleem marketed a software emulator that allowed users to play Sony Playstation games on their personal computers. Bleem's emulator appealed both to gamers who did not want to buy a Playstation console and to those who sought the enhanced graphics and higher resolution offered by PC graphics cards. The program was written and marketed by two men who reverse-engineered the code in the Playstation's components in order to mimic its functions on a PC.

While Sony would undoubtedly have liked to strike down Bleem's software itself, the legality of emulation was not an issue before the court. See Sony v. Connectix Corp., 203 F.3d 596, 607 (9th Cir. 2000) (ruling that emulators are not a violation of the copyright laws). The court noted that the availability of emulators such as Bleem may actually increase the sales of games though it hurts the sale of consoles. With most consoles being sold at a loss, one has to wonder if Sony would have been better off with the competition.

The issue before the court was whether the use of screen shots showing scenes from Playstation games in Bleem's advertising amounted to copyright infringement. Screen shots are often included in video game advertisements in order to convey to a purchaser what the game will look like on-screen. Bleem included screen shots in its advertising and packaging comparing games played on the Playstation console and games played using the Bleem emulator on a PC. The comparison was intended to show that the games looked better when played on a PC.

The district court in the Northern District of California ruled in favor of Sony and entered an injunction against Bleem's use of the screen shots. Bleem appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

Fair Use

Sony alleged that Bleem's use of screen shots violated Sony's copyrighted material. Bleem admitted that its screen shots fell under Sony's copyright but argued that their use fell under the fair use exception.

Under 17 U.S.C. § 107, the “fair use” of a copyrighted work is not an infringement. The statute provides four factors to be considered in determining fair use:

(a) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature...;

(b) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(c) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(d) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

17 U.S.C. § 107. The purpose of the fair use doctrine is to permit “courts to avoid rigid application of the copyright statute when, on occasion, it would stifle the very creativity which that law is designed to foster.” Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 577 (1994). Although the fourth factor is sometimes thought to be the most important, each factor must be considered, and no single factor is dispositive. See id.

1. Character of the Use

In analyzing the first factor, the court determined that Bleem's use of the screen shots represented comparative advertising. Bleem's emulator directly competed with Sony's Playstation console and the screen shots compared the user experience on the two platforms. Noting that the Ninth Circuit had not dealt with comparative advertising, the court referenced a Fifth Circuit opinion finding fair use where a newspaper displayed a cover of TV Guide for the purpose of comparing it to an analogous publication. Triangle Publications, Inc. v. Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Inc., 626 F.2d 1171 (5th Cir. 1980). The court also cited the FTC's stance that comparative advertising is an important source of information to consumers. According to the court, Bleem's use here helped consumers make rational purchasing decisions and could inspire Sony to improve their product.

Due to the nature of Bleem's use as comparative advertising, the court found that the first factor favored Bleem. Bleem's use provided great benefits to the public without a substantial impact on the integrity of Sony's copyrighted work.

2. Nature of the Copyrighted Work

The second factor is often less important than the others; indeed, the Supreme Court has stated that the second factor is often “not much help.” Campbell, 510 U.S. at 586. The Ninth Circuit found that the copyrighted work here was generally creative in nature, but that screen shots were merely inanimate slivers of the game. Without much discussion, the court decided that this factor neither supported nor detracted from Bleem's claim of fair use.

3. Degree of Copying Involved

The third factor recognizes that the closer the copied portion gets to the whole of the copyrighted work, the less likely it is to be fair use. The court analogized video games to motion pictures and characterized a screen shot as representing 1/30th of a second's worth of the video game. The court determined that a screen shot was of little substance to the overall copyrighted work.

The court stated that “the third factor will almost always weigh against the video game manufacturer because a screen shot is such an insignificant portion of the complex copyrighted work as a whole.” Op. at 1028. Here, the third factor supported Bleem's fair use claims.

4. Effect Upon the Potential Market for the Copyrighted Work

The fourth factor, often the most important factor, looks to the impact of the use upon the market for the copyrighted work. Beyond just the defendant's use, the fourth factor considers the impact of unrestricted and widespread conduct of the sort engaged in by the defendant. Campbell, 510 U.S. at 590. The court questioned the existence of a market for screen shots but found that, even if such a market existed, any harm to the market would be the result of critique or have a de minimis effect in light of the comparative nature of Bleem's advertising. Any losses suffered by Sony would not be in the market for its copyrighted material but in its console business.

Finding that Bleem's use would have no effect on Sony's ability to do with its screen shots as it pleased, the court ruled that the fourth factor favored Bleem.

Holding and Conclusion

The court, seeing that on balance the four factors favored Bleem, held that Bleem's use was a fair use and vacated the preliminary injunction imposed by the district court, remanding for further proceedings. The holding was qualified by a caveat that the finding of fair use only applied insofar as the screen shots accurately represented how games looked on the Playstation console. The court made clear that they were persuaded by “the need for Bleem to impose minimally upon Sony's copyright with respect to these screen shots because there is no other way to create a truly accurate comparison for the user.” Op. at 1030.

This case is a good example and good precedent for the use of comparative advertising with respect to audiovisual works, and video games in particular.

Thanks to Scott Kelly for his assistance with the preparation of this case summary
A colleague from across the pond, David Musker of RGC Jenkins, forwarded to me an interesting (and humorous) article that he wrote back in 2007. It's a funny tongue-in-cheek perspective on the technical effect test used in Europe with respect to patentability of business method and software patents. The article uses the fictitious world of "Wasted Life" to illustrate his points, and instead of using business methods, the allegedly patentable (or unpatentable) subject matter is BEER. A good read.

Enjoy the article here.
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