Patently Obvious

Full story – The Independent

It’s hardly a surprise to learn that many inventors, businesses and venture capitalists are having problems with the patents and trademarks offices.

Indeed, I’m surprised it has taken this long for people to take the threat of these things seriously, because most gamers will have been given multiple stories in the past of abuses of the system that bring shame upon these organisations, and their whole modus operandi into disrepute.

The obvious starting point is of course, Dr. Timothy Langdell. There’s some wonderful comedy over at ChaosEdge, but here’s the basics of it; Dr. Langdell used to make games in the 80’s. Throughout the 90’s and Noughties, he found an easier way to make money – squatting on a trademark of the word Edge. In the process, the man used borderline illegal and immoral tactics in order to remain firmly entrenched on this trademark – and aggressively defended it against all who would dare use it – often making life an utter misery for many smaller game developers.

The net result was he got ballsy enough to take on Electronic Arts, they of Mirror’s Edge and much larger budgets than Langdell had become accustomed to his victims having. And in an amazing bit of legal warfare, they tore him and his past tricks to shreds.

Late last year, it was all over – after two decades of sitting and defending his trademark, he was ordered to sacrifice it or face legal consequences. Mr Langdell of course insists otherwise, and there are always two sides to every story, but as he did lose this court case and of course, lost some of his trademarks, one can deduce discrepancies were found that led to the outcome that many in the industry and media rejoiced in.

So there is more to this story, but the real surprise is when you read the legal documents and the investigative journalism behind this, how on earth did he get away with it for so long? It would have cost the US Office of Patents and Trademarks (USOPT) a few bucks to buy a magazine to check its cover. It would have taken five minutes to check the internet for more details.

It’s easy to blame Dr. Langdell and Edge Games – but the system is as corrupt as can be. Valuing the money over all else.

And it goes deeper. A while back, Worlds.com decided it was going to sue Blizzard, NCSoft, Sony Online Entertainment and others in a collective lawsuit because it owned a patent on MMO Games. We’ve seen a videogame restricted from sale in Europe recently because it shared its name with a board game. This may not have been as bad if the board game people didn’t insist they were now going to turn their little-known board game into a video game. No evidence was needed nor asked for apparently, so Trenched had to be renamed. And of course, we have the word “App”. A case still in the works, so I can’t really discuss it. Legal reasons and all.

There are lots of these cases of patent and trademark infringement, often picking over the finer details, but the sad thing is – so often these things can be avoided. Patents and trademarks have been known to clash – even when both are a decade old. Suddenly the two are thrust into the same arena and it becomes all-out war.

Smaller companies get bullied. Smaller writers get bullied into towing a company line ‘or else’.

So when we blame the companies behind it, spare a thought please. Many of these people didn’t walk into this arena expecting to have to aggressively defend themselves. The whole idea of a patent/trademark is to protect yourself, your identity and your product from unscrupulous competition and their often dodgy practices. But it doesn’t work that way, so often the USOPT (and the UK as well) are more than happy to push it through – just so long as you are willing to pay.

The means to protect these companies is, sadly, now nothing more than a business in its own right. It sells you a piece of paper saying you have a patent number – and it seems in so many cases, that isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.

Patents, trademarks – the system needs to be stripped down, stripped back and made as non-commercial as is humanly possible. With a much stronger team of researchers, and a database that at the very least can search through their back cases on key words, just to be on the safe side.

Of course, no system will be perfect. But if Dr. Langdell has taught us anything, it is if you give them the means to abuse your system – they will.

 

 

 

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