Patent Trolls


[Editor's note: This edition of Game Theory was originally published in our Holiday 2008 issue]

So, did you know that invented massively multiplayer gaming and has a pair of patents to prove it?

It came as complete news to me, even though I wrote a column on massively multiplayer gaming back when the genre was just beginning. Apparently, created some kind of branded virtual spaces that used avatars and scalable chat, got somebody in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to rubber stamp its nonsense applications, and now is going to sue the entire MMORPG industry into submission, starting with NCSoft, possibly because it has less frightening lawyers than Blizzard.

Just for maximum irritation, filed its claims on December 24. Merry Christmas to you, too!

The relevant portion of its patent reads, to gamers, like a patent for eating. (“A method for intaking nutrients whereby the user opens the user’s mouth,” etc….) It goes like this:

“A method for enabling a plurality of users to interact in a virtual space, wherein each user has a computer associated therewith, wherein each computer has a client process associated therewith, wherein each client process has an avatar associated therewith, and wherein each client process is in communication with a server process.”

Did you catch that? invented the idea of connecting computers for online gaming and giving each player a graphical avatar.

This must be news to Steve Colley. Back in 1973, he and some other young programmers interning at NASA created MazeWar, arguably the first “first-person shooter.” Not only did you navigate a maze, but each player was represented by an avatar (an eyeball), people could shoot each other, and the whole thing was networked, complete with online chat!

But MazeWar wasn’t Colley’s work alone. Others had inspired him, and subsequent people built on his work, drawing on the potential of new technology to forge the entire gaming industry. No one person or company can claim ownership of these ideas.

In 1994, Compton’s attempted to exercise patent rights it had secured for its CD-ROM encyclopedia, claiming it covered any method of retrieving data from a disc. The company didn’t get far before its patent was invalidated. If that doesn’t happen, and if can get a precedent, the MMO industry will be its piggy bank.

Thomas L. McDonald has been covering games for 17 years. He is an editor at large for Games magazine.

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