Today NCSoft, tomorrow Blizzard?

From Virtual Worlds News:

On Christmas Eve, Worlds.com filed a complaint against NCsoft for infringing on its virtual world and MMO patent. Worlds.com, which was one of the early virtual world developers from the ’90s, made waves earlier this month when it announced that it had selected an intellectual property firm to defend its two patents related to scaling virtual spaces and enabling users to interact and chat in 3D environments.

NCSoft is the company behind my beloved Dungeon Runners, so naturally, I am taking an interest in this lawsuit.As far as I can tell, the lawsuit is claiming that anyone who has developed a game that allows users to interact in a virtual environment, using avatars and chat channels, from “World of Warcraft to Second Life” is in violation of the patent.

This is where it gets interesting: The patent was filed in 2000 and granted in 2007. NCSoft was founded in 1997, and there is a very large number of MMOs that predate 2000, not to mention 2007. However, Worlds.com claim that the patent the lawsuit is concerning is one that they filed in November of 1995. If so, that will predate practically every still existing MMO, meaning that prior art cannot be claimed. That in combination with high legal costs, and the burden of proof being on NCSoft might make it more attractive for the company to settle out of court than to see the case through. Should they settle, or even worse, if a Texas jury rules in favor of Worlds.com, we are looking at a very unpleasant precedent for the MMO industry and for us players of their games.

The ray of hope here is that the patent filed in 1995 is allegedly so vaguely worded and so loosely defined that if by chance there were people playing Doom on locally hosted servers on a dial-up connection when that game came out in 1994, that will constitute prior art. That and the fact that the filed complaint (direct download of pdf) specifies Patent 7,181,690 which is the one that was filed in 2000 and granted in 2007. Why it was granted when it should have been obvious there was a prior art situation I attribute to either complete ignorance or glaring stupidity, or most likely a combination of the two. “Yeah! Let’s grant this patent, so Blizzard, Sony, and EA can be sued for violating it!” …?

In a global world, this will have consequences not only for American players and developers… after all the MMO Mecca is not here but in Korea–where NCSoft is based and originated–and there are not exactly few European MMO communities either.

This is where it gets a little “interesting”. In late 2005, the EU Parliament ruled against software patents. A little bit of googling digs up indications that they might still permit and grant patents of technology that has a “real-world application” outside of the immediate software, so for example the technology that enables me to transfer money from my online bank account to the power company in order to pay a bill can be patented. The program that I use to initiate the transfer cannot.

Several news agencies reported the resolution that was passed with regards to software patents in 2005 as being “so full of compromises that hardly anyone actually wanted to push it through” whatever that means. Enforcement seems to have as been… inconsistent, perhaps due to the many compromises written into the bill. The water becomes so muddy and hazy to navigate that no one really wants to try. As with art and music it is not possible to patent an idea, only a product or an application of an idea in a practical manner. In the case I care about, the finished products are the chat engines in the games, not the ideas behind them, in other words, the actual software I installed off the CD in the box I purchased at Best Buy.

Given the EU lawsuit against Microsoft, for making it impossible to uninstall Internet Explorer and Windows Mediaplayer, it seems likely that if the lawsuit that started this thread ends either in favor of worlds.com or in a settlement, the consequences for the European MMO community will be… well, “interesting”. Will the EU honor the patent? If not, what would that mean for the global MMO community?

Of course, as of right now that is just speculation. However, I think I’m going to watch this lawsuit and see how it ends… mainly for the precedent it will set.

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