AM General LLC v Activision Blizzard Inc et al, 
FIled November 7, 2017, SDNY, No. 17-08644.

AM General—the maker of HUMVEE vehicles—has sued Activision over Call of Duty’s inclusion of HUMVEE vehicles in various Call of Duty games. AM General claims trademark and trade dress infringement, among others. The complaint specifically mentions eight Call of Duty games, including Modern Warfare, Black Ops II, Ghosts, and Heroes. In addition to the video games themselves, the complaint also alleges infringement by the Call of Duty series of Mega Bloks and BradyGames strategy guides.

Image source - wikia
According to the complaint, the use of HUMVEE vehicles throughout the Call of Duty series is unauthorized. There are several issues at play in a case like this. Trademark and trade dress rights—which AM General is asserting here—are often at issue in video games. If the use of a mark creates a likelihood of confusion or dilutes/tarnishes the mark, it may be trademark infringement.

Regarding likelihood of confusion, AM General claims that the appearance of their HUMVEE vehicles in Call of Duty games implies that AM General endorsed or sponsored the Call of Duty games. And for a massively successful franchise like this one—according to the complaint, the Call of Duty franchise has generated more than $5.2 billion in revenue—AM General obviously would be interested in the revenue generated by such a license. One issue may be whether in some cases consumers would be more likely to assume the mark owner endorses the mark’s use when the mark appears in a big budget AAA game—like Call of Duty—which might weigh in favor of likelihood of confusion.

Another typical issue in these types of cases is whether the use of a particular product—e.g., a real-life vehicle—in a video game might dilute or tarnish a trademark protecting that product. The threat of tarnishment arises when use of a mark “conjure[s] associations that clash with the associations generated by the owner’s lawful use of the mark.” L.L. Bean, Inc. v. Drake Publishers, Inc., 811 F.2d 26, 31 (1st Cir. 1987). For example, if players can use HUMVEE vehicles in the game to run people over, AM General might see that as tarnishing the HUMVEE mark.

Dilution occurs when a mark is used in a context other than the original context of the protected mark. Since real-life HUMVEE vehicles are specifically designed for use in war zones, Activision might argue that a video game depicting the use of HUMVEE vehicles in a war zone may not tarnish or dilute marks protecting those vehicles.

Another typical defense for video game developers is that the mark’s use is functional. When the mark’s use is functional or serving “other than a trade-mark purpose,” a mark holder might not have a winning infringement claim.

Activision’s lawyers have not yet responded to the call of duty—at least in answering AM General’s complaint. But when they do, some of these defenses will likely be weapons in their arsenal. In the meantime, let us know below whether you agree or disagree with AM General’s claims against Activision.

Thanks to Greg Israelsen for preparing this article.
On November 6, 2017, Activision Blizzard, Inc. (“Blizzard”) filed a petition for inter partes review (“IPR”) against Game and Technology Co. Ltd. (“GAT”).  Blizzard is challenging claims 1-7 of U.S. Patent No. 7,682,243 (the “’243 Patent”).  The same claims in the same patent were challenged by Wargaming Group Ltd. (“Wargaming”) in IPR2017-01082, which Blizzard plans to join.

Activision’s IPR petition is responsive to a lawsuit that GAT brought against Blizzard in the Eastern District of Texas on July 9, 2015 (No. 2:15-CV-1257, now 2:16-CV-6499 in the C.D. Cal.).  In that case, GAT has asserted that Blizzard’s World of Warcraft infringes three patents: the ’243 Patent, U.S. Patent No. 8,253,743, and U.S. Patent No. 8,035,649.  In separate suits, GAT has sued Wargaming, Valve Corporation, and Riot Games, Inc.

The ’243 Patent generally relates to a “pilot” and a “unit associated with the pilot,” such as a player character and an animal mount.  Claim 1 of the ’243 Patent reads:

1. An online game providing method for providing a pilot and a unit associated with the pilot at an online game, the method comprising the steps of:

controlling an online game such that a player can manipulate a pilot and a unit associated with said pilot, said pilot being a game character operated by a player, said pilot representing the player, said unit being a virtual object controlled by the player;

maintaining a unit information database, the unit information database recording unit information on said unit, in which the unit information includes ability of said unit and sync point information;

maintaining a pilot information database, the pilot information database recording pilot information on said pilot, in which the pilot information includes a unit identifier indicating said unit associated with said pilot, ability of said pilot and the ability of said unit associated with said pilot;

receiving a request for update on first pilot ability information of a first pilot;

searching for unit identifier information associated with the first pilot by referring to the pilot information database;

searching for sync point information associated with the searched unit identifier information by referring to the unit information database; and

updating and recording the first pilot ability information and unit ability information associated therewith in accordance with the searched sync point information such that said ability of unit is changed proportionally to changes in ability of the pilot by referring to said sync point,

wherein said sync point information is a ratio of which changes in said ability of pilot are applied to said ability of unit, and said steps of searching for unit identifier information and of searching for sync point information are performed by a processor.

Blizzard argues that the ’243 Patent’s “alleged novelty” relates to the “sync point,” bolded above.  Per Blizzard’s petition, the ’243 Patent is anticipated because the Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook Core Rulebook I v. 3.5 (“D&D 3.5”) discloses “player characters with animals whose abilities are synchronized based on ratio relationships, so that increases to the character’s abilities are applied proportionally to the animal’s abilities.”  For instance, D&D 3.5 allegedly discloses that a druid’s animal companion’s abilities increase corresponding to the class level of the druid.

More information on the Inter Partes Review process is available here.
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