According to a piece published in Yahoo Finance on Monday, September 23rd, a complaint has been filed against Linden Research Inc., (Linden Lab) alleging patent infringement.
The report quotes a news wire release from Worlds Inc, claiming Linden Lab and its Second Life product have infringed on a Worlds Inc patient System and Method for Enabling Users to Interact in a Virtual Space – US 7,181,690.
The complaint is the latest in a series of actions relating a set of patents filed by Worlds Inc (also known as Worlds.com Inc and Worlds Online and which I’ll refer to simply as “Worlds” for the most part below), the others being US 8,082,501, US 7,493,558 and US 7,945,856, as cited on the company’s home page.
Together, the patents relate to technologies and methods, Worlds state, to “provide a highly scalable architecture for three-dimensional graphical multi-user interactive virtual world systems”, as seen in Massive Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) and virtual spaces. These technologies and methods particularly relate to the use of avatars, means of communication between “rooms” (disparate spaces) etc. They were filed and granted in 2007 – well after the Second Life was established – but they relate to an initial filing made by Worlds, in 1995, which they argue stands as the priority date when considering the patents.
The history relating to Worlds Inc and these patents dates all the way back to 2008. It was then that the company challenged against South Korean games an MMO developer NCSoft. At the time, World’s CEO, Thom Kidrin, stated the case would be the first of many such cases, asserting that his company would “absolutely” seek financial recompense from any companies they perceived as infringing on their patents – including Activision Blizzard and Linden Lab.
Ultimately, the NCSoft case reached a confidential out of court settlement in April 2010. However, in 2012, Worlds Inc. set their sights on Activision Blizzard in what has become a convoluted case.
Responding to the complaint by Worlds, Activision Blizzard initially argued that the claim of infringement was invalid, as the technologies to which their patents referred had appeared in public prior to any patient filing. However, Worlds claimed the priority dates for their patents had been incorrectly recorded by the US Trademark and Patents Office (USTPO).
Activision’s position appeared to be upheld in a March 13th, 2014 summary ruling by U.S. District Judge Denise Casper, prompting some to repeat the view that Worlds Inc a patient troll, a view first raised at the start of the Activision case.
However, judge Casper also upheld a claim by Worlds that filing irregularities at the USTPO had resulted in their priority date being incorrect, and gave the company leave to seek a correction from the USTPO. This resulted in the priority dates for the patents being revised to an earlier time frame, and Activision opted not to challenge the revision by way of an inter partes review (IPR), allowing Worlds to re-file their claim of infringement in October 2014.
Around this time as well, Worlds also mounted a challenge against games developer Bungie. In response, Bungie filed three counter-IPRs with the patent office, claiming various parts of the Worlds patents were invalid.
Worlds sought to have the Bungie IPRs discounted on the technicality that they failed to state that Activision shares a publisher/developer relationship with Bungie. However, the USTPO didn’t agree with Worlds and in 2015, ruled in Bungie’s favour – and so Worlds took their complaint over Bungie’s IPR filing to the US Federal Circuit Appeals Court, seeking to overturn the USTPO’s ruling. In September 2018, the court heard the case and issued a ruling in favour of Worlds position, and ordered the USTPO to undertake a further IPR. Which, unless I’ve missed something in digging through assorted legal sites and papers, is where matters more-or-less stand today.
Quite where the complaint against Linden Lab will go is unclear. I’ve contacted them on the matter to ascertain if they are aware of the complaint, but have yet to receive a response – and frankly, I actually don’t expect them to do more than perhaps confirm their awareness; for obvious reasons, it can be unwise for a company to openly comment too much on legal matters. However, in the past, some observers have suggested it is Worlds Inc., who could face an uphill battle in their claims. Ben Duranske, author of Virtual Law: Navigating the Legal Landscape of Virtual Worlds, for example, has previously proposed that there is a wealth of “prior art” that could be brought to bear against them; others have also noted that there is also a wealth of documented history surrounding SL’s development that could be used to challenge claims of infringement.
But, as is often the way in these matters, it is likely things will only unfold slowly over time, so it may be a while before there is any sense of motion one way or with other. In the meantime, should I received a reply from Linden Lab, I will update this article, and I’ll also attempt to keep an eye on this issue in the future.
With thanks to Cube Republic for the pointer to the Yahoo piece.