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UPDATE - NCsoft Singled Out in Patent Infringement Suit

Posted Tue, Dec 30, 2008 by Sardu

Apparently NCsoft's Austin headquarters received one heck of an unpleasant gift on Christmas Eve, as Worlds.com filed a complaint against the publisher for infringing on it's virtual world patent with Texas courts.  The suit claims that NCsoft infringed on patent 7,181, 690, “System and Method for Enabling Users to Interact in a Virtual Space”.  Not only does the complaint seek to recover damages, but also wants NCsoft to be prevented from any further infringement on the patent.

It's important to note that though the patent was filed on August 3, 2000 (prior to the release of the NCsoft games listed in the complaint), it wasn't issued until Feb 20, 2007 – well after the release of the listed games.

The patent itself describes the following “invention”:

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 world

The description goes on from there, but that should be enough to sound pretty familiar to anyone who's ever played an MMOG in the past ten years.  What's also interesting to note is a sketch which depicts the “invention” as a part of the patent filing.  If you take away the penguins, it looks an awful lot like Ultima Online, or earlier versions of EverQuest's UI, wouldn't you agree?

This is worth pointing out, because the patent was filed after the release of the above mentioned MMOGs, yet claims to have invented the system.

What's also of interest is that NCsoft has been singled out, but as of yet no other U.S. MMOG publishers have been named as infringing on the patent – Was Sony Online Entertainment avoided at all costs because their MMOG predates the patent filing date?  I hate to jump to any hasty conclusions here, but this sounds like someone trying to make a money grab based on someone else's, preexisting virtual world designs. 

**UPDATE**

NCsoft could indeed just be the first of many MMOG publishers / developers filed against, according to an update on the claim at Virtual Worlds News.  Representing Worlds.com in the case, Lerner David Littenberg Krumholz & Mentlik LLP explained that they would soon begin contacting representatives throughout the industry.

Though no specifics were revealed as to why the infringement claim was filed against NCsoft first, it could be simply a matter of geographical location as was suggested by LDLKM's Stephen F. Roth.

"Being a foreign defendant in Texas is not a pleasant thing," he said of NCsoft, which is primarily a Korean company. "The juries are, many would say, biased towards American plaintiffs and have a propensity to offer high damages. Some defendants might view them as an unfriendly jury and it might make the defendant more likely to settle."

While the patent in question may not have been filed until 2000,  Roth also explains that it's in fact continued on from an earlier filing date, November 13, 1995.  Though not granted until 2001, this initial patent filing would actually predate NCsoft's founding in 1997, but is notably unreferenced in the current claim. 

It's likely that NCsoft won't be contacted until after the new year, and once they are they'll have 20 days to respond to the claim.  What will happen from there though, is anyone's guess, but it's highly likely that other companies will see similar claims filed in the near future.  This has the potential to have a rippling effect throughout not only the MMOG industry, but for any form of 3d virtual world currently in operation, from Second Life to Sony's Home on the PS3.

In the meantime, we'll be keeping a close watch on events and provide updates as they unfold.

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