Someone invented virtual worlds and has the patent to prove it!

December 14, 2008 at 4:35 pm (secondlife) (, , )

As Terra Nova previously reported: Worlds.com has filed United States Patent: 6219045 claiming that it invented virtual worlds.

Unfortunately for them they invented virtual worlds some time around 1996. I personally invented virtual worlds some time around 1992, and have the documents to prove it. Many of my friends also invented virtual worlds. In fact if we organized a meet-up of all the people I know who invented virtual worlds we’d need to hire a second bus to drive us to the venue.

So what does the worlds patent have that all of us didn’t invent? (Apart of course from mysterious unlabeled diagrams.) Well Worlds patent covers making sure the client isn’t overloaded with too much stuff, or it their words:

The client process also users an environment database to determine which background objects to render as well as to limit the number of displayable Avatars to a maximum number of Avatars displayable by that client.

… though that might mean something apart from what I imagine, as I can’t quite understand their grammar. Putting limits on a client-server system to make sure you don’t overload the client seems like such a sensible idea. I’m amazed nobody thought of it before!

In fact they did. It’s standard best practice in designing any non-trivial client-server system. Before Worlds first mentioned thinking it up the problem in their patent, the United States Military had set up a team to solve the problem. Not long after this team became a member of the Web3D Consortium to work their draft spec towards an ISO standard.

For a patent to be upheld I believe there is a requirement for the idea to be novel. When five minutes googling can turn up countless prior-art examples (such as the above) there’s obviously no novelty here.

That’s not to say that Worlds.com hasn’t innovated in some ways. Everyone designing software must innovate – coding is a process of creative problem solving on many levels, so software development is innovative by nature. The patent though describes nothing that hadn’t been done before.

Folk who know me understand that I have a jaded view of intellectual property law, and expressed it in a piece for the international justice commons. To quote:

The use of patent law to stifle technological development is well documented. Arguments of this sort cite a “negative right” the patent holder gains, allowing them to exclude competitors from exploiting a similar invention they may develop independently. The legal burden of producing prior art in such cases can preclude the competition from proving their case even when they may have developed the invention first. When this is the case and a patent is contested, the competitor may be forced to cease development of the invention, or pay a licensing fee for use of the others’ IP.

I can’t see how this patent could be used any way apart from aggressively. Worlds, as an early entrant into the virtual worlds game, would be well aware of the other early developments in their emerging field. No honest software engineer would ever dare claim they were the first to invent the generic wide reaching processes described in the patent.

So this begs the question… what are Worlds.com trying to do here? Is it just trolling? Did the lawyers knock the technical guts out of their innovations? I’m not quite sure.

— UPDATE:

Tateru Nino posted quite a good article on the subject before me it seems. Much less ranty than mine.


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