Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Is ZeniMax Being a Patentless Troll in Its Claim Against Oculus?

Shamus Young | 6 May 2014 15:00
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EP 5.6 3x3

It kind of sounds like the set-up for a joke: Company known for occasionally buggy software accuses someone famous for brilliantly stable software of stealing from them. It's like Uwe Boll claiming Steven Spielberg stole one of his movie scripts. He doesn't need to steal, and if he did steal he certainly wouldn't steal from YOU.

But it's not a joke, and the real story is a lot more complex than it sounds in the headline. ZeniMax is claiming that John Carmack stole company technology when he left to work at Oculus VR. ZeniMax is the company that owns Bethesda, the studio infamous for buggy games. John Carmack (and I hope you already know this) is one of the most famous - if not the most famous - programmers in the industry, and is the inventor of countless rendering tricks and techniques. His technology drove games from Wolfenstein 3D to DOOM to Quake, all the way through to recent titles like Rage. He's famous for writing gorgeous code and for being so smart that while his day job is programming, self-taught Aerospace Engineering is his hobby. While some of the other "rock star developers" of the 90's were famous for their energetic public personas (John Romero and Cliffy B. being the two biggest examples) Carmack is pretty much the ideal engineer: Self-effacing, enormously polite, candid, calm, and analytical.

(Disclaimer: Whenever I praise Carmack's work, there's always that one person who points out that they don't care for games from id Software. Fine, but we're not talking about gameplay here. We're talking about software. Carmack has distinguished himself by making games that are stable, smooth, and a couple of steps ahead of what everyone else can do, graphically. You don't have to be an old-school FPS fan to appreciate what the genre accomplished in the 90's.)

The first thing that strikes me as dubious about the ZeniMax claim is that it's kind of vague what they're actually accusing Carmack of stealing. In their claim they state, "The proprietary technology and know-how Mr. Carmack developed when he was a ZeniMax employee, and used by Oculus, are owned by ZeniMax."

"Proprietary technology" could mean a lot of things. Hardware? ZeniMax isn't in the hardware business. You can't steal hardware technology from ZeniMax any more than you can steal ice cream technology from Honda. Patented technology? Nope. ZeniMax doesn't have any patents on anything Carmack has done. Source code? The idea that Carmack would steal source code is absurd. If there's any source code at ZeniMax that's worth anything to him, it's stuff he wrote himself and could easily re-create at Oculus. Carmack even said:

So I strongly suspect that by "technology" ZeniMax is actually just talking about "knowledge". Like, they're claiming to own the ideas in Carmack's head because he got those ideas while he was working for ZeniMax. If this is true, then their lawsuit is offensive in the extreme.

Disclosure(s): Oculus Rift hardware and games were provided to The Escapist by Oculus.
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