Patents in Gaming

By Ben Lamb (BGLamb), Onrpg writer
In the fast-moving world of modern software, patents provide developers with a valuable defence against the theft of their ideas. More than this however, they are used as streams of revenue for small innovative businesses, and big bullying sticks for the big corporations.
Companies or individuals can register a patent for a particular invention, whether that invention be a physical object or simply a way of doing things that is considered particularly original. In this way they are different from a ‘copyright’, which would only apply to a specific work. This broadness of their nature makes them a very tricky customer in the world of law(craft), and lawsuits for the infringement of a patent are far more common than the relatively easily avoidable ‘copyright’ lawsuits. In fact, in the software industry, it is often said that it is impossible to write any piece of software without infringing a patent somewhere.
Due to the nature of the technology they generally apply to, the lifetime of a patent is much less than that of a copyright. They can apply to almost everything and there are thousands of patents relevant to gaming today. They cover everything from the hardware of the various consoles, the software that runs on them, right up to the very ideas behind games.
The big names in computer gaming today each own hundreds of patents. They continually licence out, either to each other or to smaller firms (if they can afford the fee) like one big, legalistic group-hug. There are also a plethora of smaller companies whose efforts would otherwise have been forgotten had they not patented an idea that would turn out to be essential to the industry, and which would then sit in the corner like a proverbial golden hen, shitting them out billions.
Many people (me among them) like to point out some of the innovations to the industry that Nintendo have rolled out across the ages. The first to use a d-pad instead of a huge joystick The first to use a standardised pause button The first to have shoulder buttons. First to have rumble. First to take that d-pad and make it an analogue thumbstick. First to make a balance-board yoga ‘game’ (errr….yeah, I’ll stop there). But despite the fact that Nintendo made all of these popular, they are often not the original inventors and have had to pay for many licences for them.
In the arena of the console controller (one of the most popular fighting grounds), a company called Anascape is currently causing loads of trouble for the big boys. They’ve claimed patents on a whole range of controller functions, from things like pressure sensitive buttons and analogue sticks, to very confusing sounding inventions like the “Variable Conductance Sensor with Elastomeric Dome Cap”.
Whilst Microsoft has been happy to pay them their due, Nintendo have been taking it to the courts and, mostly, getting their arses handed to them. And much as Sony like to claim that they didn’t include rumble in the PS3 controller due to interference with their motion sensing kit, they are currently facing a ruling that may force them to stop selling any rumble related hardware at all. This includes the PS2.
There is almost no area of gaming that remains untouched by these patents, as almost any good idea in a game can (and usually will) be patented. For instance, you know the way that, in almost every 3D game, the camera is attached to the mouse and moves in a sphere around the player character? That’s patented. So next time you run across a game with an infuriatingly bad camera set-up and can’t help but rage at the developers, it’s usually lack of funds, rather than common sense that led the developers down the path of poor camera management.
MMORPGs, despite seeming at times to all be slight variations on the exact same theme done and re-done a thousand times, have been relatively free from concerns about patents. That is, until recently. A hugely important lawsuit is currently in progress in America concerning and NCSoft. NCSoft being the creators of the wonderful MMO City of Heroes (& Villains), and being money grabbing bastards.
Broadly, their patent covers the sending of packets of data back and forth between a client and a server, where the packets represent the positions of objects in a persistent 3D world. Now it doesn’t take long to realise that this covers not only every MMO ever made, but also a huge number of other games, right back to Doom (and beyond!). In fact, it’s essentially impossible for an MMO to work without this software.
So why have they picked on NCSoft? Well has decided that they are the easiest target to go for first. A win against NCSoft would provide with the precedence needed to attempt to take on the heavyweights of the industry. Namely Blizzard (World of Warcraft) and Linden Labs (Second Life). There’s no reason for them to stop there though. If they win, they will likely take on every MMO out there, one at a time.
So what does this mean for MMOs? Well first off, Worlds aren’t going to attempt to restrict the usage of their patent, they are simply going to try and extract a large amount of money for it. Due to the fact that there are a huge number of companies with a huge number of games relevant to this lawsuit, the infringements are gigantic. This could, however, work in NCSoft’s favour. Their main defence will be that kept very quiet about their lawsuit for a very long time. It’s considered very bad play to sit on your patent until a company (or, in this case, an entire industry) has built a reliance on it, and then try and claim exorbitant amounts.
The outcome of the initial case is, apparently, too close to call, even for those with an eye for these things. One thing is agreed though. If win this case, they should have very little trouble extracting money from every single MMO out there and making a gigantic swimming-pool of money to bathe in, laughing maniacally.
Understandably, every eye in gaming is turned towards this case, and yours should be too. Watch this space!
To discuss this further, go to this Forum Thread.

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