Any person who "invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent," subject to the conditions and requirements of the law. So says the US Patent and Trademarks Office (USPTO), citing the applicable statute.
There's a lot of slicing, dicing and hair splitting over nearly every part of that sentence, and some extraordinary debates and numerous calls for reform of the patent system. Nevertheless, today we're looking at two patents that the owners appear to be keen to enforce.
Between them, they appear to cover a few simple, and difficult-to-avoid systems that underpin pretty much every graphical virtual environment, and MMOG that you can think of, from World of Warcraft, to Second Life -- and perhaps most of the online multiplayer games since the era of Doom.
The two patents in question are 6,219,045 and 7,181,690. Respectively those are "Scalable virtual world client-server chat system" and "System and method for enabling users to interact in a virtual space".
As software patents go, they're actually pretty straightforward. Don't be fooled by the language, however, as patents only appear to be written in English. Sure, the words are English as are the sentence constructions, but each word and phrase possesses an accretive definition representing layers of judicial precedent. Many of the words, therefore, do not necessarily have the same meanings you would find in the dictionary. Not when it comes to arguing them in court.
And an argument in court seems to be in the offing.
"We are pleased to have the expertise and IP experience of General Patent and Lerner David to enforce Worlds' patent portfolio," stated Thom Kidrin, Worlds' CEO. [our emphasis] "As the number of virtual worlds and MMORG's continues to grow, Worlds has seen the space we pioneered in 1995 validated in techniques and methodologies we believe are defined in our patents."
We're not sure that Worlds.com necessarily pioneered the space in 1995, but whether they did or not really isn't the issue here. Patent 6,219,045 was filed in 1996 and granted in 2001. Patent 7,181,690 was filed in 2000 and granted in early 2007.
Right now, barring some circumstance that might invalidate them (a lengthy and costly procedure), Worlds.com does in fact appear to hold the keys to the fundamentals of almost all virtual environment and MMOG architectures.
The usual procedure at this point is to line up the lawyers and demand money. Lots of money. Submarine patent enforcement strategy usually goes one of two ways. Either you basically hit a lot of people at once, hoping that a whole bunch of them will settle before any of the cases actually get to court, or you target an organization that is weak or has little in the way of cash reserves.
In the latter strategy, getting your weak target to roll over in court establishes a precedent that makes your patents much harder to overturn by anyone else in future.
Obviously there's prior art involved, but a half-baked prior-art opposition can actually strengthen a patent's position, and potentially invalidate the prior art from being used in further challenges.
Vigilantibus non dormientibus æquitas subvenit
"Equity aids the vigilant, not those who slumber on their rights"
The doctrine of Laches -- typified by the above quote -- seems to be the most effective opposition in this case -- basically, that if World.com's patents are being infringed upon, that it has been happening openly for some years, and that they chose to do nothing during that period.
You can also bet your bootstraps that these are not the only patents lurking in the wings that potentially threaten our favorite industry. We expect to see more of this sort of thing pop up over the next few years.
In the meantime, we will be watching what World.com and its partners do with these patents with keen interest.
Update: NCsoft has been sued for infringement of one of these patents, and we've got additional commentary here.