Lawsuits spinning out of control

If you find the constant legal wrangling between rival slot machine makers International Game Technology and Bally Technologies perplexing, you’re not alone.

Roughly a dozen patent infringement lawsuits and antitrust claims between the companies are floating through the federal courts. This month, a Las Vegas federal judge threw out IGT’s long-standing lucrative patents that cover bonus wheel-based slot machines. The company is appealing the ruling to a special Washington D.C., patent court.

The constant bickering is over IGT’s Wheel of Fortune slot machines. The company has dozens of games using the same platform, but with different titles.

Once a pay level is reached and certain symbols align, a gambler spins a bonus wheel for additional jackpots.

Bally Technologies has its own bonus wheel-based games, such as Reel Winners. Other slot machine makers have their own games with a spinning wheel bonus system.

For fun, check out the action on the showroom floor of next month’s Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. Before the slot maker booths open to the industry, packs of intellectual property lawyers from each of the major companies roam the floor in search of patent violators.

If IGT losses its appeal, any Joe the Slot Machine Maker can come up with a wheel-based game and sell it to the casinos. A bigger concern is if casino companies decide to build their own games.

IGT General Counsel Dave Johnson is confident the slot maker will win its appeal.

Another fight involves Harrah’s Entertainment casinos, which have been removing IGT games where the casino operator and the slot maker share revenues. Harrah’s isn’t happy with the revenue split percentages.

Slot players have one suggestion to the quarreling parties: Just put loose games on casino floors.

***

Kirk Kerkorian’s latest flirtation with the automotive industry ended last week. MGM Mirage investors hope the 91-year-old billionaire will now turn his sights toward the beleaguered casino operator.

Kerkorian, who controls almost 54 percent of MGM Mirage, is selling his shares of Ford Motor Co. He is looking at a potential loss of more than $500 million.

Through his privately held Tracinda Corp., Kerkorian said the funds would be relocated into gaming, where he sees “unique value.” His MGM Mirage holdings could increase. The company’s stock price has fallen some 90 percent in the past year.

“It is not clear how quickly Tracinda may move to divest Ford shares or much of any of the proceeds would be earmarked for MGM,” said analyst Jake Fuller of Thomas Weisel Partners. “But the commentary has certainly raised interest in the stock.”

Howard Stutz’s Inside Gaming column appears Sundays. E-mail him at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or call 702-477-3871.

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