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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, 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... you are top-tier meanies.

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