British Telecommunications (BT) have filed a lawsuit against Valve claiming patent infringement. The action was brought "based on Valve's continued willful infringement" of four patents (I'll go into what they are in a moment) and was filed in Delaware on 28 July.
[Edit: I was wondering "Why Delaware?" and reader, @Bear_Theory, linked me to this PricewaterhouseCoopers study pointing to page 15 which has Delaware as one of the favourable venues for patent holders to file suit because there's a decent combination of a shorter time-to-trial and higher success rate for patent holders. It's not the only district where that's the case (the study also highlights Virginia Eastern, Texas Eastern, Wisconsin Western and Florida Middle as filling out the rest of the top five) but it would make it one of the more attractive options when filing. I'm going to take out the earlier paragraph because it only confuses matters and adds irrelevant info BUT I'll leave this link to Delaware's government website where they talk about "myths" regarding corporations and Delaware because it was also entertaining in its own right.]
Anyway, let's take a look at the filing. It specifically mentions that Valve "offers a broad range of products and services which incorporate technologies invented by BT. These include, inter alia, Valve’s Steam Library, Valve’s Steam Chat, Valve’s Steam Messaging, and Valve’s Steam Broadcasting." It states that BT has notified Valve of the alleged infringement on multiple occasions and has requested discussions to address the issue, giving a licensing arrangement as one possible option.
The filing continues "Valve has failed to respond to BT’s correspondence, at all, and chosen instead to continue to infringe the Patents-in-Suit willfully and wantonly." Further correspondence from BT's intellectual property rights counsel to Valve has, it says, been ignored.
"BT brings this action to recover the just compensation it is owed for Valve’s past infringement, and to prevent Valve from continuing to benefit from the patented inventions in the future without authorization or compensation to BT."
The four patents mentioned in the suit are the Gittins Patent (US Patent No 6,578,079), the Newton Patent (US Patent No 6,334,142) the Beddus Patent (US Patent No 6,694,375) and the Buckley Patent (US Patent No 7,167,142).
Patents are ways of excluding others from making use of your invention without permission for a limited time after the patent is granted. These are US patents and are only effective in the US and its territories and possessions. The four listed above are utility patents which are granted to anyone who discovers "any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof".
The Gittins Patent is about customers being provided with content originating from multiple subscription services through a single portal and being able to retrieve that which they have rights to access. There are more details in the filing and in the patent description itself but essentially this relates to Steam's basic structure for customers.
The Newton Patent is included as BT says it pertains to Steam Chat and relates to a method for delivering messages to "an intended audience in a reliable and predictable manner. Messages are stored as files at a server for retrieval by the intended clients. Each client transmits requests for messages to the server at automatic and periodic intervals."
The Beddus Patent is to do with the provision of different communication mechanisms and associated call control protocols. With regard to Valve, the filing references the communication network on Steam where you can use text chat or VoIP calls, each of which are associated with call control protocols. Also of note here is that the system monitors the user's status and changes to that status can determine which communication methods are available to them.
The Buckley Patent is the one which BT say relates to Steam Broadcasting. It "relates to a multi-user display system and method for controlling a communal display that includes at least two independent workstations and an interface server for connection to a data network." As per the filing: "Steam Broadcasting controls a communal display that allows a game player to share a streaming video of their game play with one or more second users. Steam Broadcasting also uses an interface server that manages the users and their requests."
If you're curious I suggest reading the filing because it goes through the step-by-step processes which constitute each patent and why they believe Valve's various Steam set-ups infringe those patents. You'll get more of a feeling for the specifics involved such as particular divisions of storage and so on. The Beddus Patent was the one where I needed to have a proper read through to see what was so specific. It's also just interesting from a logistical point of view if you want to know how aspects of Valve's Steam platform work.
BT are asking for a judgment holding Valve liable for the infringements, damages resulting from the infringement, a judgment determining the infringement to be deliberate and willful along with a trebling of the damages, BT's legal fees and expenses and whatever else the court might care to offer.
I've sent Valve a request for an official response or comment so I'll add one in if they respond. I'm also kind of considering trying to add "Smith Smith" - the example user they cite in the filings - as a friend.