Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Following up on the patent issue

Yesterday I wrote a post detailing a pending patent application with potentially grave consequences for the RPG hobby and industry alike.

That post has since garnered over 2200 views, and has a +168.

More than that, it's been posted across G+, theRPGsite, RPGnet, reddit, Stack Exchange, Story-Games, been shared by RPGnet's Twitter account, and probably more than my limited tracking can keep up with. Dozens of comments have been posted to the Unlimited Horizons Facebook page, though many have since been deleted by the page owner.

On the legal front, at least one individual that I know of, and possibly more have filed third-party comments on the patent application, a step I encourage anyone with the capability to do. I've also been informed that CCP Games' legal department has been forwarded information on the patent.

I have been floored by the response from the RPG community. To a one, and despite the insinuations  the UH representative, you have all been reasonable, intelligent, and impassioned without being hostile. It has been a wonderful thing to behold.

The creator, meanwhile, sticks to his guns in claiming to be merely protecting his interests and following the advice of their legal counsel. I find the latter claim to be suspect (why hire a patent lawyer if you weren't looking to file a patent?), but as to the former, well, consider this me protecting my interests. He has his resources (one estimate I've seen indicates he's spent nearly $2,000 in patent fees alone, plus the cost of that patent lawyer), so I have used the one available to me: my voice.

I am a creator, but I am a creator who creates on the backs of giants who came before me. I do not wish to see this hobby or this industry become the same kind of legal battlefield that I see in the tech and software industries, and such an atmosphere would seriously hamper the entire development of this hobby. RPGs are an iterative field, and cutting off that kind of development, especially with such shameless tactics, is unacceptable.

This is bigger than me. Even if I truly believed the author is indeed merely an innocent and naive creator seeking only to protect his works from theft, was pure of heart and mind and never once would abuse the power such a broad and appropriative patent, it still sets a dangerous precedent. What happens when the next guy comes along who isn't so nice?

The RPG community has spoken in response, loud and clear, that this is absolutely unacceptable practice. If you haven't already, and are able, please submit comment on the patent application while there is still time. And make it known by whatever means you can to the creator and the audience that this behavior will not be tolerated or profitable for those who would attempt it.

Here's the instructions for third-party comment:

And the relevant form:

Thank you all for your support, we're all in this together.


  1. I don't think the applicants understand business very well. Maybe they are indeed genuine in stating they will never use claims of patent violation against anyone who isn't directly infringing upon their products. But that doesn't mean much should their products fail on the market and assets are purchased by third parties who have made no such promise.

    1. Which is a very good point. This is usually what happens in patent troll cases. An old patent from a failed company is purchased because it can be interpreted to read on technology fundamental to an expanding or well-established market.

      I see these kinds of cases a lot. Now, the table top games market is not massive, but it is growing relatively quickly. At the end of the day, a patent like this hanging out in the world can only cause trouble, and would not protect a legitimately new, useful, and not-obvious invention.

      In short, patents applications like this subvert the function of the patent system. Already this patent application has required the expenditure of my tax dollars, and taken up the time of an examiner. The USPTO is pretty overworked as it is, frivolous patent applications like these are a drag on resources.

      And there is risk that it could issue, partly because the language is obfuscatory, masks the process as a software process, and because the USPTO has a great deal on its plate.

  2. What I find interesting is that for a company intent on protecting intellectual property rights, the company name is a pretty terrible trademark.

  3. I don't think that Universal Horizons is actually trying to do what you think it is.

    I've made this blog post trying to explain better about what's going on:

  4. And I disagree that their supposedly 'innocent intent' actually matters.

    This is a precedent that should not stand, and the patent itself IS vaguely written enough to apply to more than just their own game, as well as describing a whole lot of prior art.

    Whether the author is being honest or not isn't even really the point. It's about whether *anyone* should have that level of legal muscle, and whether or not we want this to become a "thing" in the RPG development sphere.

    Further, I have serious reservations about the supposedly honest motives of the creators. Their own words contradict themselves as to whether it applies merely to computer usage or paper, they've spent at least $2,000 + lawyer fees so far on this process, and they chose to hire a *patent lawyer* only to claim ignorance and innocence when, surprise, that lawyer recommended a patent. Not just that, a lawyer whose firm proudly states a particular skill and talent for defining patents as broadly as possible.

    I do not have $2,000. I do not have a professional patent attorney. I only have my voice, and that is what I've done. He has brought only that, and I question the validity of making it out like I or anyone else who disagrees with his actions are somehow going beyond the pale by exercising that voice.

    Fortunately, it does look like the community, and the legal system, have spoken loud and clear that this isn't going to wash. The reaction of RPG fans has been almost universally negative, the patent application has been rejected at least twice now, third-party comments have been added, other more well-equipped legal teams may be involved now, and a recent SCOTUS decision looks to invalidate precisely the sort of "vague concept, but with a computer" patents that UH has filed.

    And all over something the creator can solve with a simple action of their own, one I personally suggested directly: abandon the application. Don't waste any more money and time on it. It's as simple as that.

    I don't think that's too much to ask, considering the blatant invalidity of their claims and the impact it would have on the industry if it nonetheless succeeded.

  5. I explained my usage of the term clearly on the UH page directly before it was deleted.

    I stand by the application of the term as the facts were presented. I have no reason to trust UH, they are not my friends, they are (purportedly) a business, and they are taking part in actions which are textbook examples of patent troll behavior, even going so far as to hire an professional in the field.

    Hanlon's razor leans towards assuming mere incompetence, but regardless, this was still a ridiculous action from someone I've been given no reason to trust, either now, or in the future.

    How exactly am I supposed to know they won't start targeting other developers with this? Your word? Who are you to promise me that? Can you also promise they will *never* abuse that patent in the future? Never start looking to lean on the competition when the business inevitably fails to support itself? Never's a pretty strong word. Even *if* your friend is a perfect gentleman and truly does never put that power to evil, what about if the company tanks and he sells it to someone else?

    Nevermind the precedent it would set if it actually got through (which thankfully, it now appears will not). Maybe your friend is completely honest, but what about the next guy? And the next? Because you can damn sure bet once there's a precedent for patents in this field that more will be coming.

    If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, but swears to high heaven it isn't a duck, who're you gonna believe?