A Boston court delivered a big blow Thursday to a company that claims to own “virtual worlds,” rejecting claims that game maker Activision should pay for using talking avatars in popular online titles like World of Warcraft.
In a ruling, U.S. District Judge Denise Casper wrote that patents belonging to Worlds Inc. appear invalid because the inventions they describe already appeared in public before the patents were filed.
The patents themselves, including US Patent 7,181,690, claim “a method for enabling a first user to interact with other users in a virtual space,” and are based on an earlier filing from 1996 that depicts the “invention” in action. Here’s a drawing from the patent:
The patents in question belong to an obscure company called Worlds Inc. that raised eyebrows in 2009 when it announced that it owned the rights to virtual worlds and that it would sue the entire gaming industry, including giants like Activision and Second Life. But as one report suggests, Worlds Inc. hasn’t done much game-making of late, but instead turned its old patents over to a contingency fee law firm in hopes of a windfall — it’s become a patent troll in other words.
Worlds Inc.’s hope for a windfall met a setback, however, after the judge shot down its attempt to string together old and new patents (a process called continuation) in order to sue Activision. The ruling, embedded below, is highly technical but the gist of it is that the judge found that Worlds Inc. had failed to comply with patent regulations and that public policy means the company shouldn’t get any slack.
The ruling comes as the Supreme Court is about to hear an important case over whether software patents, like the ones being wielded by Worlds Inc., should even be allowed in the first place. Such patents are unpopular among many game developers who argue they cover basic ideas, rather than inventions, and that, in any case, game code is also protected by copyright (see the comments in this Polygon story about the Worlds Inc. case for a smart discussion of the issue).
In response to the decision, Worlds Inc. has sent out press releases portraying the ruling as a victory, but this is largely a public relations effort. While, as the release points out, the patent office has corrections to the patents, that will only allow Worlds Inc. to sue for “future acts of infringement” — meaning the company says it will now go after “Call or Duty: Ghosts” instead. That will be a long slog, however given Activision’s summary judgement victory this week.
If you’re into such things, here is the judgment with some of the relevant parts underlined: