(Via Colin Miller) NCSoft, the producers of virtual worlds such as Lineage, City of Heroes and Guild Wars has been sued by virtual platform developer Worlds.com, which holds several patents on 3D environments. Back in December, Terra Nova had reported that Worlds.com had announced that it would be enforcing its patents, and as everyone in the comments section agreed, this was a completely spurious claim. As far as I can tell, Worlds.com is not involved in the MMO market, as it makes bespoke virtual enviroments for corporations and the enterainment industry, yet it has warned that it will enforce its MMO-related patents.
The patent in question is U.S. 7,181,690, which protects a system and method for enabling users to interact in a virtual space. The abstract reads:
“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.”
In this line of work I have become used to ludicrous patents, but this one should be awarded a price. Given that the filing date is August 2000, I am sure that any examiner should have come up with examples of graphical avatar interaction in a 3D environment. Meridian 59 and The Realm Online were released in 1996, Ultima Online in 1997, Lineage in 1998, and Everquest in 1999. All of them embody exactly the patent claim, so how could it have been awarded with such extensive prior art?
This is why so many people are opposed to software patents. All you need in order to make money out of litigation is to make a vague claim for which there is a mature market, get it issued because the examiners do not know anything about the subject, and then start suing market leaders in order to extort licence fees from those who are actually innovating and making popular products.
By the way, the drawing with the penguins is part of the patent claim. I kid you not.