Armmogeddon: The Patent Of Doom

Here’s a story that hit during our week off – it’s one you probably already know about, but as it’s potentially something that’s very bad news for PC gaming, it’s only fair and right to give you fine folks a convenient place to discuss it. Massively (thanks, Larington) has one of the better summations and explorations of what’s going, as they seem to have clever people with some grasp of law on their staff. RPS, by contrast, has a philosopher, a youth worker, a biologist and a literature graduate. We’re no good at this stuff.

The crux of the story, though, concerns patents 6,219,045 and 7,181,690. In (something like) English, those refer to “scalable virtual world client-server chat system” and “system and method for enabling users to interact in a virtual space”. There’s space for a lot of give and take in those descriptions, but you get the point – two fundaments of pretty much every MMO past, present, and probably future.

On Christmas Eve (Christmas Eve. Man!) one Worlds.com, which currently creates, as well as its own long-running Second Lifey app, 3D virtual worlds for various clients (most recently legendary hip-hop fella DMC and Aerosmith, amusingly) flexed its patent-muscle in the direction of MMO publisher/developer NCsoft. It first filed the terrible twosome in 1996 and 2001 respectively. In other words – it does rather look as though they’ve potentially got the MMO industry by the short and curlies. In theory, Worlds can go after everyone. God only knows what they could squeeze out of Blizzard.

Rather than hitting a bunch of developers/publishers at once, though, it’s picked on a straggler – presumably in the hope of setting a precedent for future, bigger wins. It’s no secret that NCsoft isn’t in the rudest of health right now (look to the impending closure of Tabula Rasa, for instance). So they may well lack the resources to mount an impentrable defence. They’re possibly easier prey than one of the bigger boys – but prey that does nevertheless have some cash to seize.

Or at least that was the popular theory. The most recent revelation is that NCsoft hadn’t been legally served with the suit, even though it’s been filed. Filed, served, tomayto, tomato, God knows. The thing is that time’s running out for notice to be served, otherwise the whole thing dries up. Which, we’ll agree, is probably worth crossing our fingers for. Not just for the sake of MMOs today and tomorrow, but because, well, read those patent titles again. They theoretically apply to any and every online multiplayer game. Erk.

If notice is served in time, the best hope for Worlds case falling over is, apparently, a judgement that there isn’t really any other way for games to achieve what the patents cover – that it’s like trying to patent eating, or juggling.

Let’s hope the court, if it makes it that far, does feel that way. Much hinges on this – too much. Someone like Blizzard can probably stomach a big cash-squeeze, but other smaller fellas could be badly hurt by it. Then there’s what it would mean for future multiplayer games… Worlds.com: you are top-tier meanies.

83 Comments

  1. Mil says:

    I’m not a law-talking guy either, but surely the best hope for this case is that the patents in question are invalidated for any reason (prior art would be a prime candidate). It recently happened in a patent suit that Siemens brought against Seagate, the hard drive manufacturer.

  2. Cunningbeef says:

    I believe I might have originally found this here, but there’s an interesting article on Gamasutra about wots wrong with the patent system and how they’re inhibiting the games industry.

    I guess this is another nail in that coffin. I’d actually be interested to see this go through, just to see how it plays out.

  3. rob says:

    I don’t really understand the legal stuff behind this but surely there’s plenty of prior art that would invalidate these patents? From massively: “Patent 6,219,045 was filed in 1996 and granted in 2001. Patent 7,181,690 was filed in 2000 and granted in early 2007. Respectively those are “Scalable virtual world client-server chat system” and “System and method for enabling users to interact in a virtual space”.”

    Even ignoring the slew of MMOs that existed before then surely something as ancient as Essex MUD allowed you to chat to people and interact with them.

  4. Alec Meer says:

    The first Massively article I linked to goes into that a bit – sounds like prior art defence is a lot harder than it used to be.

  5. Mil says:

    It’s difficult to tell what the Massively article is talking about in relation to prior art, since the three masturbatory colourful paragraphs it spends on the subject don’t actually manage to say anything useful. But the Siemens patents in the suit I mentioned before were invalidated due to prior art, I think.

  6. Tom says:

    This is specifically about software patents and is just another example that shows us that how we think about the concept of ‘intellectual property’ in general needs to change.

    Its not just the games industry either. With software patents, even things like the ‘double click’ can be patented, or a loading bar, or basically anything that comes to anybody’s mind. The cry for ‘prior art’ is far to defensive, as the whole concept is deeply flawed.

  7. Larington says:

    Its my understanding from other discussions on this issue that although the initial application of the patant was pretty damn early, something like 94, there were some other attempts at virtual worlds around 93/94 that should hopefully bring an invalidation due to prior works result. Thats my hope, time will tell if thats how things work out.

  8. Yam says:

    LambdaMOO and DikuMUD are prior art.

  9. Gwyn says:

    There seems to be some misunderstanding – the patent titles refer to ‘a’ method, not ‘any’ method. Without reading the specific claims of the patent, it’s impossible to know what Worlds.com owns the rights to.

    Given the validity of the average software patent lawsuit in the US, it’s in fact likely that they are entitled to diddly-squat.

  10. Ixtab says:

    I can only imagine that they think the bigger companies such as Blizzard and co are stupid. Surely if people with no legal background like us can spot that they’re trying to set a precedent Blizzard’s army of lawyers will spot it and they’ll back up NCSoft to cover their own hide, or at least I would hope so.

    Also will this be a case for a jury or a judge? Since if it’s got a jury surely there will be atleast one person on the jury that thinks “Wait a moment, what is this rubbish?”

  11. Larington says:

    BTW, if you’re a developer, especially one of the ones working on a 3D MMO, I’d probably advise against looking up the patents online as apparently that can triple the damages payable to the suing company.

    Just in case this crap hits the fan, you see.

    Otherwise, go to google and do a search using the patent numbers, you’ll get to see details including demonstration images of how the concept is implemented in their minds, particularly for the 3D virtual world patent which has amongst other things a 3 perspective drawing of a penguin.

    I kid ye not.

  12. Sagan says:

    Frome the 1996 patent:

    The present invention provides a highly scalable architecture for a three-dimensional graphical, multi-user, interactive virtual world system.

    I don’t think there was prior art for three dimensional MUDs in 1996.

    Still I don’t think their claim is valid. Because everything from that patent was around before 1996. Three-dimensional graphics existed, and MUDs existed. And I don’t think you can claim, that you were the first to think about combining these two. It was entirely logical that the industry was moving towards 3D-graphics, and it was only a question of time until someone made a 3D-MUD.

    Also software patents in general are bullshit.

  13. Stromko says:

    I think the patents were written to apply specifically to 3D games, whereas DikuMUD and the like are 2D at most. Of course it’s still crap, Worlds.com has no precedent for saying they invented these concepts, they’re just the only ones sleazy enough to patent them.

    Hopefully ‘prior art’ is still a viable case, otherwise you may as well see Microsoft patent “an interface whereby files and programs are accessed with icons”.

  14. Mo says:

    RPS, by contrast, has a philosopher, a youth worker, a biologist and a literature graduate.

    Jim, John, Kieron, and Alec?

  15. qrter says:

    Gotta catch ’em all!

  16. Pags says:

    One wonders why they haven’t pressed any action until now. Though my knowledge of law proceedings is equivalent to my knowledge of something-that-I-don’t-know-much-about (I was going to come up with a humorous comparison but couldn’t think of any, sorry) so feel free someone to explain it to me in baby language if necessary.

  17. Tim says:

    They must be inspired by Sco. This patent trolling stuff is happening everywhere.

  18. Kieron Gillen says:

    Mo: You goddit.

    KG

  19. faelnor says:

    yay for less MMOs (doing this right ?)

  20. mandrill says:

    Does a patent not have to be pretty specific, or did they change the rules for software patents? If I want to patent a pencil, I have to provide a diagram of the pencil itself and how it would work. Same for a better moustrap and perpetual motion machine. Surely a software patent should provide at least pseudocode or a diagram of the processes going on within the software, or is this me being awfully naive?

  21. Gap Gen says:

    If only someone patented grinding and then sued everyone who did it…

  22. unclebulgaria says:

    Just another software patent. A trawl through the Slashdot archive should give some more general background on this particular fiasco (and plenty of rants, of course).

    My 10p – if this is worth defending, NCSoft will find themselves defended by the finest legal minds Blizzard et al can summon. A conglomerate of companies will put together a defence fund and in five years, the dust will settle and Worlds will have a small cash settlement.

    Who wins? The lawyers.

  23. Uncle Dennis says:

    @I don’t think there was prior art for three dimensional MUDs in 1996.

    Well, I was having my mind blown by one in ’96, so think again. Meridian 59 ring any bells for anyone?

    I can’t say I’m averse to MMOs being nuked anyway. It might freshen things up a little.

    It won’t happen though. Booooo.

  24. jaguth says:

    Oh boy, another patent troll. Just makes me wonder why our justice system has yet to create laws that punish patent trolls. I mean, to most of us techies, differentiating between a bonefide patent and a troll is as clear as day and night.

    My favorite new patent troll is that russian guy who “patented” the smiley face emoticon. I wasn’t aware that you could patent something already being widely used in text communication. In soviet russia, smiley face patents you!

  25. Larington says:

    As I said previously, if you are a developer currently working on an MMO, I’d recommend not looking at this document unless the patent suit has failed/fizzled/won’t-be-tried-again.

    The drawings show their suggested implementation, I wonder if you’d actually have to use the details of the interface in that document to get properly sued for patent infringement.

    link to google.com

    All things considered, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ESA would get involved as well if it threatened US MMO games development enough.

  26. Gap Gen says:

    Maybe this is just publicity for a company no-one had heard of or cared about, and it won’t get past this stage. In any case, this sort of software patenting could just screw the US as MMO publishers pull out and concentrate on the Asian market. A bit like how US laws governing the export of satellite technology have screwed the US satellite industry.

  27. Nifft says:

    US paptents are pathologic…
    In Europe there are no patents for softwares… The can move their server in Europe, or simply leave US market to monopolistic firms.

    By the way… I think there are several published MMO ideas dated before 1996. I also have wrote (in 1989) an essay (at school) about persistent 3D virtual worlds were different people connected from places far away, could interact though their avatars.

  28. Gap Gen says:

    Larington: Oh, wait, NCSoft doesn’t make any games about penguins. I think we’re safe.

  29. Eli Just says:

    Honestly this patent is ridiculous. It’s like patenting breathing! I doubt they’ll really be able to pull this one off, and if they do, they’re all going to a very special place in hell.

  30. Larington says:

    I hate to admit this, but the day the attack on the World Trade Centre happened, I was actually a regular user of the Worlds.com client. They had a little comedy guessing game where you’d try to finish the jokes for the hosts and the person who got the most laughs after all the jokes had been answered would get a free 6 month vip account (Allows you to use 3D/custom avatars). Problem is they consistently failed to update the technology so it gradually looked more and more dated until even I couldn’t put up with it anymore. And this coming from someone whose been dabbling in UFO: Enemy Unknown lately.

  31. MetalCircus says:

    waitwaitwait. explain this for idiots like me who have irrational fears of the law. What does this mean for PC gaming, in short, succint, laymans terms.

    Thanx guyz.

  32. Larington says:

    It means that either A: Bad guys win and lots of MMO companies have to pay out lots of money just because the first MMO company lost (Sets a precedent).
    Or B: The good guys win as the opportunistic vultures get almost laughed out of court as they either suffer from incompetence or get out argued by the defence.

    (This assumes you don’t think that MMO companies are the spawn of satan)

    We don’t know which way its going to go because the Law is funny like that… Especially when its Judge Dredd enforcing the Looooooorrrrre… Umm, sorry, The Law TM.

  33. BooleanBob says:

    What is the difference between a man and a parasite?

  34. Ted says:

    Worst case scenario, they win the suit, arrange a royalty agreement with all the MMO companies and life goes on. How exactly is this armageddon or doom? It’s clearly not in the companies interest if they win the suit to lose the royalty payments by shutting down the games. They didn’t stop selling Blackberries because they lost the patent case; they just bought a license to use the patented technology.

  35. Larington says:

    Its been reported that Worlds already has law suit documents prepared to file against all the other MMO companies on the assumption they might win. In otherwords, its their hope to go to town with the ‘competition’ and make lots and lots of money via a large number of auto-win precedent law suits. Really sleazy dealing it is.

  36. MetalCircus says:

    I don’t play MMO’s (i occasionally dabble in the god aweful Anarchy online from time to time, with a mate you understand, i wouldn’t play that on my larry and be able to keep my sanity) but still, this is a bit of a shitty end of the stick.

    Hope this doesn’t go down the worst case scenario.

  37. Larington says:

    Can you imagine how big the nerd-rage campaign would be if Blizzard ended up paying out big or was even forced to close down WoW?
    Maybe thats what the Mayan prophecy has been going on about all this time. (I kid, of course)

  38. deeply concerned kobzon says:

    man, legal issues are becoming the sales figures of PC gaming

  39. Scaredy Pants says:

    What a way to start out 2009 huh?

    Correct me if I am wrong here for a moment. Wouldn’t these patents also include non-mmo multiplayer games such as Counter-Strike, TF2, pretty much any game with a 3D world environment, and an in-game chat system?

    If they get their way with this, they could pretty much ruin a lot of game developers with lawsuits. Hell they could probably sue the pants off of Id Software for Quake.

  40. Saul says:

    Reminicent of this suit against Duke Numem 3D, from 11 years ago:

    link to wired.com

    Which got nowhere. I’d be pretty surprised if this can of worms doesn’t suffer the same fate.

  41. Post Maker says:

    Even though the odds of this happening are slim enough to counted as zero, I am still entertained by the idea that WoW could be shut down by this suit. I’d never have to hear any more talk of min-maxing, spreadsheeting, battlegrounds and all the other things about WoW that I have to listen to every day. I’d have two roommates instead of two WoW players for the first time since I moved in. They’d probably get into some other games, but they’d be games I could play with them, games that don’t require grinding or gear-checking or any of that stuff.

    It would be heaven.

    And I’d never again have to hear that insufferably snide shit about “11 million can’t be wrong!”. 5 years of hearing that and 11 million people can lose a potentially major part of their lives for all I care.

  42. MetalCircus says:

    Man, that would be a pisser. Surely no-one is that heartless and money hungry? I understand moneys important in this day and age (which I hate, acctually) but jesus!

  43. PODON says:

    Do you mean the CRUX of the story? A CRUTCH is a device used to support someone with a broken leg (something this story needs); a CRUX is a centerpiece, or cross; colloquially, it can be used to indicate the GIST of a story, which is what I think was intended. The gist of my comment is that bad writing almost always ends up causing the kinds of confusion this piece causes.

  44. AlexW says:

    The only patent applicable before 2001 is the “scalable virtual world client-server chat system” one, and since it doesn’t specify it being 3D there’s no problem. The 2001 one is vague enough that, ironically, even things like Quake could be used by the defence as prior art.

    This will fail. The combined legal forces of every company that makes online games of any type will see to that.

  45. MetalCircus says:

    Of course PODON, bad writing is solely made up of one word and absoloutley nothing else.

    And yes, 11 million people can be wrong. People are idiots, remember. I’d like so much to say people are worth it but lets face it, most people are feckless drones with mechanical workings for innards. So yes; 11 million can be wrong.

  46. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    I hope that some judge, somewhere, happens to be a WoW addict.

  47. Heliocentric says:

    Equally depressing news, but this one much more real. 1up got bought by UGO and they fired most of the staff.

    link to 1up.com

    Just fucked up, they had a site i went back to for the podcasts and the features, but now its dead.

  48. Dinger says:

    Air Warrior had a system where each user-pc-client had an avatar and reported its position and orientation to a server, which furnished each client with a sub-set of avatars and orientations based on location.

  49. Joseph says:

    @BooleanBob

    A man is a one-dimentional being who live on analogies.

    A parasite is a bug.