Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Patent challenges - EFF and online gaming

I was told the other day that someone had filed a patent related to certain aspects of online games. That alone wouldn't necessarily raise an eyebrow -- however, this one was vague enough that it covered a fairly broad spectrum of how online games are run in relation to holding tournaments, pairing up competitors based on rankings, and so on. Ultimately patent holder's efforts would likely have homed-in on the ladder ranking systems used in a variety of popular and highly profitable MMO games, such as World of Warcraft, Everquest, and so on.

A number of these systems use a rough equivalent to the way chess tournament rankings take place -- the "Elo" system of which was adopted by the US Chess Federation around 1960, although other numerical ranking systems predated that one.

Granted, patents can be obtained when making old technology new, by putting some innovative new mechanism to work or by improving on the old ways in some fashion. In this case, however, it's been argued that no new technologies or methods were introduced, and that in fact all claims in the patent filing related to systems and methods already in use or in the public domain.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a watchdog for people's rights, has managed to file sufficient evidence to have the patent in question reexamined. To quote their press release found here, the party that filed the patent "used this bogus patent to coerce licensing fees from numerous small businesses". The EFF in fact has a "Patent-Busting Project" that attempts to protect the rights of consumers and businesses from such endeavours.

One such example of them approaching a business can be found here.

To challenge this, they need to trying to establish a timeline for events, in relation to "when were the various revisions of the patent filed" vs. "when were such technologies demonstrated that precede that filing".

If I recall correctly Battle.net had its own ladder ranking system for various games, albeit not as sophisticated as we see today. They would have been hard-pressed to code the Battle.net infrastructure after the earliest filing related to the questionable patent and still gone live in January of '97, if you want to go as far as seems reasonable in the filer's favour -- mind you, I'm not a lawyer. Of course, similar systems did ultimately predate even the inception of Battle.net, and so the patent holder appears to be standing on thin ice indeed, even when trying to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Who knows -- perhaps the filing party will be vindicated in the end, like in the looong uphill battle fought by the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. At the moment, however -- particularly when considering how quickly businesses were approached after the filing -- it seems more like a quick attempt at a cash grab, preying on unsuspecting small businesses trying to make their way.

The EFF's activities aren't for everyone -- they've been around for a relatively long time, and their stance on certain subjects related to privacy and personal freedom don't sit well with some. In this case, though, I think that most will applaud their efforts.

Without appropriate attention to detail, it's only a matter of time before someone tries to patent the wheel. Oh wait -- that's already been done. ;)

No comments:

Post a Comment