By Malathi Nayak
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - In the midst of the bitter national debate on gun violence, gun manufacturers and videogame makers are delicately navigating one of the more peculiar relationships in American business.
Violent "first-person shooter" games such as "Call of Duty" are the bread and butter of leading video game publishers, and authenticity all but requires that they feature brand-name weapons.
Electronic Arts licensed weapons from companies like McMillan Group International as part of a marketing collaboration for "Medal of Honor: Warfighter." Activision Blizzard gives "special thanks" to Colt, Barrett and Remington in the credits for its "Call of Duty" titles.
Rifles by Bushmaster, which made the gun used in the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting last December, have appeared in the hugely popular "Call of Duty."
Yet, in the wake of the Newtown shooting, the biggest advocate for gun ownership, the National Rifle Association, took aim at videogames to explain gun violence. One week after 20 schoolchildren and six adults were killed in the shooting, NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre called the videogame industry "a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people."
Now at least one game maker, the second largest by revenue in the United States, is publicly distancing itself from the gun industry, even as it finds ways to keep the branded guns in the games. Electronic Arts says it is severing its licensing ties to gun manufacturers - and simultaneously asserting that it has the right, and the intention, to continue to feature branded guns without a license.
For the gunmakers, having their products in games is "free marketing, just like having Coca-Cola" in a movie, said Roxanne Christ, a partner at Latham & Watkins LLP in Los Angeles, who works with video game companies on licensing, but has not personally done a gun deal.
Yet it is also a virtual double-edged sword. "It gives publicity to the particular brand of gun being used in the video game," said Brad J. Bushman, a professor at Ohio State University who has studied video game violence. "On the other hand, it's linking that gun with violent and aggressive behavior."
Gun makers, including the Freedom Group that owns brands like Remington and Bushmaster, and the NRA, did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Reuters.
First-person shooter games let players blast their way through battlefields while looking down the barrel of a virtual gun, taking aim with the flick of a controller.
Some of those guns - like the Colt M1911 pistol in "Call of Duty" - turn sideways to face the screen during reloading, revealing the brand name. Games also offer lists of branded weapons to choose from.
Licensed images of weapons in "Medal of Honor: Warfighter" - a game that simulates military missions like fighting pirates in Somalia - offer what EA spokesman Jeff Brown calls "enhanced authenticity."
Back in the late 90's, video game makers initially approached gun companies for licenses to inoculate themselves from potential lawsuits, video game industry lawyers say. Over the years, legal clearances were granted for little or no money by gunmakers, these lawyers said.
Yet overt signs of cooperation between the video game and gun industries had begun to draw criticism even before the December school shooting in Connecticut.
In August, game fans and some video game news outlets vehemently objected to EA putting links to weapons companies like the McMillan Group and gun magazine maker Magpul, where gamers could check out real versions of weapons featured in the game, on its "Medal of Honor: Warfighter" game website.
"What kind of message is a video game publisher like EA sending when it encourages its players to buy weapons?" asked Laura Parker, the associate editor of gaming site GameSpot Australia in a post in August.
EA immediately removed the links and dropped the marketing tie-up, which it said was part of a charity project to raise money for military veterans. The company said it received no money from its gun company partners.
"We won't do that again," said Brown. "The action games we will release this year will not include licensed images of weapons."
EA said politics and NRA comments critical of game makers had nothing to do with its decision. "The response from our audience was pretty clear: they feel the comments from the NRA were a simple attempt to change the subject," Brown said.
EA also says video game makers can have branded guns in their games without getting licenses, meaning the industry could drop the gun companies and keep their guns.
Activision, the industry leader, declined to comment on whether it licenses gun designs from gun manufacturers or if it would stop doing so. Branded guns have consistently been featured in its blockbuster shooter games like the decade-old "Call of Duty."
"We're telling a story and we have a point of view," EA's President of Labels Frank Gibeau, who leads product development of EA's biggest franchises, said in an interview. "A book doesn't pay for saying the word 'Colt,' for example."
Put another way, EA is asserting a constitutional free speech right to use trademarks without permission in its ever-more-realistic games.
Legal experts say there isn't a single case so far where gun companies have sued video game companies for using branded guns without a license.
But EA's legal theory is now being tested in court. Aircraft maker Bell Helicopter, a unit of Textron Inc, has argued that Electronic Arts' depiction of its helicopters in "Battlefield" was beyond fair use and amounted to a trademark infringement. EA preemptively went to court, suing Bell Helicopter to settle the issue.
The U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, has set a jury trial for the case in June.
(Reporting By Malathi Nayak, Editing by Peter Henderson, Jonathan Weber, Mary Milliken and Tim Dobbyn)