There’s a chance you’ve heard about the lawsuit being made against NCSoft (the Korean company that owns such games as City of Heroes, Guild Wars the sinking Tabula Rasa, and so forth,) in terms of claims that NCsoft has infringed upon a patent granted to the plaintiff, World.com.
Pretty straightforward stuff, on the surface. The premise of City of Heroes did, after all, lead to a brief tussle with Marvel over the issue of a superhero game being a copyright infringement, so how would this affect anyone who doesn’t play an NCsoft game?
More than you would think.
It all comes down to what the patent, covers. Written in legalese, which is only translatable by blind monks in Nepal, (you have to dictate to them, coincidentally,) part of the patent specifics read as thus;
‘The present invention provides a highly scalable architecture for a three-dimensional graphical, multi-user, interactive virtual world system. In a preferred embodiment a plurality of users interact in the three-dimensional, computer-generated graphical space where each user executes a client process to view a virtual world from the perspective of that user. The virtual world shows avatars representing the other users who are neighbors of the user viewing the virtual word. In order that the view can be updated to reflect the motion of the remote user’s avatars, motion, information is transmitted to a central server process which provides positions updates to client processes for neighbors of the user at that client process. The client process also uses an environment database to determine which background objects to render as well as to limit the movement of the user’s avatar.’
Basically, the patent states that if an individual or company creates a virtual ‘world’ within a server, one that allowed other players to interact via pixilated characters in a shared environment, World.com should be entitled to receive a healthy percentage for the idea. Does this sound in any way familiar?
Oh, yeah, it sounds like pretty much every MMORPG ever made.
Keep in mind, this isn’t a patent on specific code or technology; if it were, World.com would likely have no case, since the technology has since advanced and the techniques altered since the application was filed in 2000. (References from Patent Storm) No, this is a patent on the very concept of having human beings interact with electronic avatars, which is pretty much the one defining staple of an MMO, which means that it doesn’t particularly matter how the technology or coding changes. The patent is effective as long as the game is meant to be played by mass numbers online, and who knows, it might even be applicable if Virtual Reality ever becomes a possibility.
This is where the lawsuit with NCsoft comes in; the patent is still new and untested, so to speak, and so World.com needs to find itself precedent to make its claim all the more valid. NCsoft is an ideal target, for a two primary reasons;
- The company if South Korean, and so since World.com filed the lawsuit in the U.S., more specifically Texas, they may be hoping for juror bias. This would be particularly effective if they manage to keep any MMO players from showing up on the jury, since naturally such a group might be more inclined to support the home team rather than their hobby.
- With the financial flop of Tabula Rasa, and no less than two superhero MMO’s on the horizon, NCsoft is probably one of the more vulnerable companies on the market, and so more tempting a target than, say, Blizzard.
Now, if you play MMOs, of any kind, this does affect you , because of that one sweet word; precedence.
If NCsoft is forced to provide a settlement to World.com in terms of patent, well, they’ll have the precedence they’ll need to start hitting every other company infringing on their patent, and this time with a strong likelihood of winning. Which is to say, pretty much everyone. World of Warcraft, Playstation Home, Second Life, even Eve Online, all of these would be fair game to the terms World.com would dictate.
As much as this may sound like a charming underdog story, where the small company rises up and sticks it to the ‘Man,’ this is not a good thing. As nice as it is to see big business take a bit of flak, this development could leave the MMO market stagnant and unchanging; it’s enough of a financial risk to build an MMO, which typically takes more work than your average video game. Upon learning they’d have to hand over a portion of whatever success you have to a company that takes no actual financial risk to reap these benefits, most companies will probably move on to more traditional games, leaving the MMO market barren.
As much as we might rankle at the thought of a large company winning, let’s be honest; they invested, they wrote all the code, did all the design art, build all the servers, and so forth. For a company to insist that they should be paid every time a vague system is tantamount to Microsoft demanding that every time an Operating System of any kind is made, they should get money, whether or not they actually designed the thing.
Of course, if this is permitted, I’m going to go out and take a patent myself. ‘Use Of Multiple Organic Digits In Laying Out Commands To Computerized Electronic Devices.’
Yeah, typing. I think it’s going to be big.