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Oculus and Facebook facing ZeniMax in trial

The legal battle between Oculus Rift owners Facebook and Bethesda parent company ZeniMax, who allege that the cybergoggles are partially built on work ZeniMax own, has reached a jury trial. Turns out, real courtroom battles are nowhere near as fun as Judge Judy or Ally McBeal would have you believe. Still, this week sees folks including Facelord Mark Zuckerberg take the stand, and some of the testimony is interesting or, at least, bantermonious. For one thing, Facebook think VR needs another 5 or 10 years to get where they want it (them ruling the cyberworld?).

The repercussions of this case could prove significant to the development of virtual reality. Even setting aside the potential payout if they lose, the ruling could throw a big stick in Facebook’s cyberwheels. As one of the two main goggmakers leading this wave of VR, anything that slows or halts Oculus could derail VR. HTC and Valve’s Vive is natty tech too but Facebook have such reach and profile that could help spread it.

To briefly recap: ZeniMax, the gamecorp who own studios including Bethesda and id Software, have since 2014 accused Oculus of using technology ZeniMax owns.

In the early days of the Rift, id Software technomancer John Carmack and other ZeniMax employees tinkered with prototypes and shared work with Rift creator Palmer Luckey under a non-disclosure agreement. ZeniMax also say that even after Luckey formed his company he and Oculus’s CEO, Brendan Iribe were still seeking expertise and know-how from ZeniMax. According to the suit, the companies had discussions about how to compensate ZeniMax for the use of their intellectual property (this is back in 2012) but that over the next few months “Luckey, and Iribe became increasingly evasive and uncooperative” on the matter.

There’s a whole heap more, but essentially ZeniMax are saying that Facebook were notified that these disputes and the NDA Luckey signed existed and that buying Oculus would lead to a breach of said NDA. They also claim that, after quitting ZeniMax for a job with Oculus, Carmack returned to ZeniMax in order to take a tool which is used for developing head-mounted displays. Oh, and a recent ZeniMax statement ahead of the trial mentioned the company would “present evidence of the Defendants’ intentional destruction of evidence to cover up their wrongdoing.”

All of this leads to a heady cocktail of causes of action when you get to the end of the document – common law misappropriation of trade secrets, copyright infringement, breach of contract, tortious interference with contract, conversion and a few more. Facebook and Oculus, conversely, insist that the Rift is made of technobits they own and everything’s cool.

So! After years of paperwork, it’s now gone to a jury trial. I’ll not get bogged down in details at this point because the trial’s still ongoing and claims will be made and denied and countered all the while, but I will pick out a few interesting bits from it.

“I don’t think that good virtual reality is fully there yet,” the New York Times reports Mark Zuckerberg said in his testimony. “It’s going to take five or 10 more years of development before we get to where we all want to go.”

The current wave of VR is obviously not ready for the primetime but it’s interesting to hear Facebook are playing on that timescale. I fair reckon wager their hopes for virtual reality go far beyond gaming, mind, likely thinking of it more as the next layer of our lives they can track and fill with ads.

Over on Gizmodo, The Zuckster is quoted confirming that Facebook planned to push the Oculus acquisition through with surprising little time for legal diligence. They planned to begin on a Friday then sign the deal on the Monday. Zuckybaby says he only found out about the NDA between Luckey and ZeniMax in 2016, which makes that quick acquisition look perhaps a little too hasty.

Anyway! There’s more nuance to all of this but I’m not trying to recap everything. Oculord Palmer Luckey is testifying today. He may well be hovering above the stand as I type this.

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Alice O'Connor

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When not writing news, Alice may be found in the sea.

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