Before we dive into the newly minted legal battle between Hit Box and Junk Food Custom Arcade, keep in mind that any of the claims by either party are merely allegations until otherwise proven in a court of law.
Just over a week ago, Junk Food Custom Arcades (JFCA) filed a civil suit against Hit Box, the manufacturer of the immensely popular all-button arcade controller. The filing is on the heels of a cease and desist order sent by Hit Box’s legal representation, Dickinson Wright PLLC, on Nov. 9.
In the cease and desist letter, Hit Box claims that Junk Food Custom Arcades’ Snack Box Micro, Snack Box V2 Buttons Only Edition, and the Snack Box V2 King Size Buttons Only Edition infringe on Claims 1 and 10 of U.S. Patent No. 10,022,623 (the “623 Patent”) per 35 U.S.C. § 271. Dickinson Wright PLLC went on the further claim that the ‘SnackBox’ name is also a direct infringement of the “HITBOX” trademark filed by the company in June 2014.
Hit Box acknowledged that Junk Food was listed as a premiere sponsor and vendor for CEO Fighting Game Championship from Dec. 3-5, 2021. As a result, Hitbox asserts that it’d cause irreparable damage to the Hit Box brand if Junk Food sells the Snackbox variations. Moreover, the demands listed include:
- Informing CEO staff in writing that Junk Food would not displaying, marketing, or selling any of the ‘Infringing Products’ at the event;
- Remove from sale and surrender to Hit Box any and all of the Infringing Products in Junk Food’s possession or under their control, or destroy all such merchandise and confirm to Hit Box in writing that Junk Food had done so;
- Provide copies of all documents, correspondence, purchase orders, pro forma invoices, correspondence, and any other records relating to the manufacturing, contracting, purchase and distribution, and marketing of the Infringing Products;
- To immediately cease and desist trafficking, marketing, and selling any of the projects that infringe on the ‘623 patent’;
- Provide a list of every product sold, including wholesale, retail, and online transactions based on the ‘623 patent’ design.
In what Junk Food Custom Arcades calls “a good faith effort to resolve the dispute”, the company pulled out of CEO with little fanfare. Instead, they filed their own lawsuit on Dec. 6 in Georgia, stating that Hit Box failed to make any credible analysis in their cease and desist letter that they infringed on the ‘623 patent’. In addition, JFCA questions the validity of the ‘623 patent’, and claims that the patent violates 35 USC §§ 101, 102, 103, and/or 112 (Inventions Patentable; Conditions for Patentability – Novelty; Conditions for Patentability – Non-Obvious Subject Matter; Specification).
Ultimately, Junk Food seeks a declaratory judgement that “623 patent” will be deemed invalid along with other punitive damages. They claim that the “Hit Box” design is no more than an ergonomic variant of commonplace technology and that an all-button layout should not be subject to patent.
This whole fiasco could very well change the landscape for the ergonomic arcade controller market. Should Hit Box lose the patent of their all-button design, not only would Junk Food be able to freely sell controllers with a four-finger directional design – but so could larger companies.
Fight stick manufacturers like Mad Catz, HORI, and Qanba are probably biting at the bit for the chance to take advantage of the all-button layout’s popularity. Up until this point, any mainstream “Hit Box” design is the result of after-market modifications to an existing traditional fight stick. For example, my HORI Fighting Edge II with an all-button layout from Arcade Shock – which oddly enough, is no longer available on their online store.
The community’s reaction
The fighting game community’s reaction to the news have been very mixed, with much of the rhetoric being to blame Hit Box. People have pointed out that all-button layouts have been around for over a decade, with some saying the design precedes Hit Box’s 2010 patent. Many believe the notion of laying claim to a patent over an ergonomic design nefarious and ultimately anti-consumer.
Others point to the similarities between Hit Box’s design and the “MixBox” – an all-button arcade stick that used the directional keys of a mechanical keyboard. To some, that’s all that the Hit Box design is – a glorified keyboard that uses Sanwa push buttons. The ergonomic design is just a variation of existing technology currently used in office spaces worldwide. However, it should also be noted that ergonomic keyboards also have patents, with the earliest one invented by Gunter Murmann and Manfred Frank of ZF Electronics.
This is all while Hit Box has been notoriously behind on shipments for their flagship product, and recently received a lot of backlash following a bump in price from $199 to $249. Angry consumers feel that Hit Box is trying to maintain a monopoly on the all-button market at the cost of bleeding out any remaining goodwill.
Supporters of the Hit Box say that their patent leans squarely on the button placement in a 2D space, and that Junk Food is blatantly ripping off the design by copying the button placement down to the millimeter. Breaking this patent could have huge implications even beyond the traditional all-button layout, as Hit Box is currently the only manufacturer of the “Smash Box” – an all-button interface compatible with the Nintendo GameCube, and GameCube Adapter for the Nintendo Wii U and Switch. Junk Food already has a working prototype they were planning on showing off at CEO 2021.
Even more interesting is if the patent could crack the designs of Hit Box’s newest product: The Cross|Up – a seemingly traditional arcade stick with D-pad guided directional buttons outside the face buttons, and an arcade stick mapped to the analogue stick of a traditional controller.
Now, to make matters even more confusing, Junk Food’s Snack Box Micro and Snack Box Micro Artwork Case are listed as ‘patent-pending designs’. Details of what the patents actually are have yet to come to light. However, Paradise Arcade Shop teased a similar product in 2018 and 2019 that later became the MPress Fighting Case. Additionally, Marvelous Customs have offered their own variations of acrylic cased all-button arcade sticks as far back as 2017.
Junk Food has also been accused of shifting their own legal might around as seen on the r/fightsticks subreddit. It is alleged that u/jfedor designed the open source “Flatbox” controller and tried posting the newest version approximately five months ago when the moderators were contacted by Junk Food’s lawyers with a cease and desist of their own. If proven to be true, Junk Food’s efforts to shut down open source projects are equally as damaging to innovation.
There is always a bigger fish
This whole situation is very similar to the ongoing lawsuit between Valve and SCUF regarding their own controller designs. Junk Food and Hit Box are both relatively big names within the FGC, with Hit Box having been depicted as the villain for years due to their controller promoting a “dishonest” playstyle. However, if Hit Box is not able to adequately able to defend their patent, the winner won’t be Junk Food. It will be the larger manufacturers, who can undercut the competition with access to cheaper parts and mass production.
The outcome of this lawsuit could very well be the death knell for many small businesses within the community.