Facebook purchased Oculus VR back in March for a cool $2 billion. But now ZeniMax Media has set the startup company turned Facebook acquisition in its sights. Zenimax Media, the parent company of Bethesda Softworks and ZeniMax Online Studios, developer of the recently released MMORPG The Elder Scrolls Online, alleges that it owns key technology behind the development of the Oculus Rift headset.

Caught in the midst of the dispute is John Carmack, a developer and industry veteran known for his work on such games as Doom, Quake, and Castle Wolfenstein. Carmack now works for Oculus VR, but he previously worked with Oculus VR on the project while he was still under contract with ZeniMax. And that’s where this starts to get heated.

In a statement to Gamasutra last week, Zenimax claimed that it had sent a letter to Oculus concerning the allegations and knowledge of Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey stating:

"ZeniMax confirms it recently sent formal notice of its legal rights to Oculus concerning its ownership of key technology used by Oculus to develop and market the Oculus Rift”, a Zenimax statement to Gamasutra read. “ZeniMax’s technology may not be licensed, transferred or sold without ZeniMax Media’s approval. ZeniMax’s intellectual property rights arise by reason of extensive VR research and development works done over a number of years by John Carmack while a ZeniMax employee, and others. ZeniMax provided necessary VR technology and other valuable assistance to Palmer Luckey and other Oculus employees in 2012 and 2013 to make the Oculus Rift a viable VR product, superior to other VR market offerings.

The proprietary technology and know-how Mr. Carmack developed when he was a ZeniMax employee, and used by Oculus, are owned by ZeniMax. Well before the Facebook transaction was announced, Mr. Luckey acknowledged in writing ZeniMax’s legal ownership of this intellectual property. It was further agreed that Mr. Luckey would not disclose this technology to third persons without approval. Oculus has used and exploited ZeniMax’s technology and intellectual property without authorization, compensation or credit 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. ZeniMax believes it is necessary to address these matters now and will take the necessary action to protect its interests."

Carmack later took to Twitter to address the allegations himself.

No work I have ever done has been patented. Zenimax owns the code that I wrote, but they don't own VR.

— John Carmack (@ID_AA_Carmack) May 1, 2014

Oculus uses zero lines of code that I wrote while under contract to Zenimax.

— John Carmack (@ID_AA_Carmack) May 1, 2014

An Oculus VR representative responded to our inquiry for a comment about the situation earlier today and said this:

We are disappointed but not surprised by Zenimax’s actions and we will prove that all of its claims are false. In the meantime, we would like to clarify a few key points:

  • There is not a line of Zenimax code or any of its technology in any Oculus products. 
  • John Carmack did not take any intellectual property from Zenimax.
  • Zenimax has misstated the purposes and language of the Zenimax non-disclosure agreement that Palmer Luckey signed. 
  • A key reason that John permanently left Zenimax in August of 2013 was that Zenimax prevented John from working on VR, and stopped investing in VR games across the company.
  • Zenimax canceled VR support for Doom 3 BFG when Oculus refused Zenimax’s demands for a non-dilutable equity stake in Oculus.  
  • Zenimax did not pursue claims against Oculus for IP or technology, Zenimax has never contributed any IP or technology to Oculus, and only after the Facebook deal was announced has Zenimax now made these claims through its lawyers.
  • Despite the fact that the full source code for the Oculus SDK is available online (developer.oculusvr.com), Zenimax has never identified any ‘stolen’ code or technology.

Hunker down folks. This one is probably going to get interesting.

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Last Updated: Mar 13, 2016

About The Author

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Stacy "Martuk" Jones was a long-time news editor and community manager for many of our previous game sites, such as Age of Conan. Stacy has since moved on to become a masked super hero, battling demons in another dimension.