Experienced Points

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

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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.

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Note that everyone else working in VR is being open with their findings. Palmer Lucky (who designed the first Oculus prototype) freely shared his design with Carmack. The people at Valve were happy to share all of their findings on refresh rates and lenses. Lots of people have made mods, ports, or demos of VR games so we have lots of working examples to study and can answer all the lingering questions about how to make VR as appealing as possible. How do we present a 2D interface? What’s the best way to arrange the lenses to avoid eye strain? How do we handle existing FPS conventions like the gun model, or the HUD, or screen-shaking, or vision distortions that can’t be translated directly into VR? People around the world are hammering away at these questions, and they’re all sharing their findings because it’s good for VR. Now here comes ZeniMax, claiming that they own some ideas in a field they’re not interested in and have no plans to pursue.

Our patent system is already horribly broken. Instead of encouraging innovators, it’s created this cottage industry of trolls who don’t invent anything, but instead grab overly broad and vague patents and then sue actual innovators. It’s destructive and allows lawyers to stifle progress and siphon off cash intended for inventors. ZeniMax is taking this idea even further. They’re suggesting that they don’t even need a patent. They seem to think they own ideas simply because they were paying Carmack when he thought of them. (Editor’s Note: Carmack did show off a VR 3D headset of his own at E3 2012 and QuakeCon 2012 attached to an unfinished version of DOOM 3 BFG.)

So why is ZeniMax claiming to own technology they don’t want on the basis of patents that don’t exist by accusing a programmer who has no reason to steal from them? Well, according to ZeniMax:

“ZeniMax and Oculus previously attempted to reach an agreement whereby ZeniMax would be compensated for its intellectual property through equity ownership in Oculus but were unable to reach a satisfactory resolution.”

So there it is. This isn’t about technology at all. Facebook bought Oculus for two billion dollars, and ZeniMax saw their relationship with Carmack as a way to lay claim to some of it. It’s a bit like the way that distant relatives and old grievances suddenly appear whenever someone wins the lottery. They heard about the money and are looking for a way to get a cut.

Three months ago, I said that Greed is Not The Problem at Electronic Arts. But this? This is what greed looks like. ZeniMax isn’t trying to make a new product, or find a new market, or protect their share of an existing market, or trying to increase their value by serving their customers. They are doing the exact opposite. They are producing nothing, and attempting to take money away from people who are trying to make a new product.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, Spoiler Warning, and How I Learned.

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