Saturday, May 01, 2010

Still the One

I have been an internet consumer since long before the days of the Twitter and Facebook.  Since before the days of the world wide web and portal pages.  Heck, I was an internet user back when we referred to it with terms like Archie and Gopher, and .Alt usenet groups were our greatest love.  Which of course means everyone reading this blog now thinks I'm old beyond belief and will probably need help crossing the street.  "Want me to prop up your modem, gramps?"  Darn kids....

My enjoyment of the internet has become predicated on a few cherished beliefs:  A) everyone is considered equal in all ways online and we overcome physical limitations when we share our ideas in this forum (but you can't hide stupid);  B) free is best, but if you find a way to circumvent the cost of an item, you best be prepared to face any potential legal consequences (because you ain't as anonymous as you THINK you are);  C) anyone can build almost anything they want online (within the terms of their service agreements of course).

The problem with C) is that you're inevitably going to run into issues such as the one I mentioned in my previous post.  Someone is going to have patented a methodology for something that you simply can not replicate in any form.  The ongoing battle between Amazon's one-click patent and other vendors such as Barnes and Noble illustrates this problem (disclosure:  I am a member of Amazon's "Sell our shit to make yourself money" program, but as I have sold nothing ever, I feel comfortable that my affiliation with the program is not currently corrupting me, though I would be open to such corruption should I start actually making any money from the association).

Here are the details of the patent.  I picked that web site because it's the most clear illustration of what has been patented and how it was expressed in the patent.  This is not ten thousand lines of code that control and direct a user into making a purchase with one click.  This is a very abstract concept that explains the IDEA of the one-click method, but not an actual product that performs this action.  Yet somehow Amazon has been able to promote this concept as a hard patent, and win lawsuits based on it.

In my opinion, you should not be able to patent such broad concepts.  I view the outline provided in the details of the patent - site retrieves customer data; site passes data to server; etc. - as no different then the rules of a board game or video game.  They are underlying processes that define what will be done, but do not describe HOW to actually do it. 

Take Monopoly as our example again.  Currently, Hasbro probably has copyrights on all the verbiage and graphics of the game and marketing materials.  They probably hold many multiple trademarks as well on the name and its variants. 

Now imagine that Monopoly holds a patent on "a method and system for rolling dice to move a player's piece during a board game."  They describe how a player would:  A) roll a dice; B) generate a total; C) move their piece along a pre-defined path on the board; D) respond to changes that are a result of the move.   How is this a patent?  Is not rolling dice something many games do, and people have done for centuries?  Do we not generate totals for other games?  Did not other games require you to move pieces down set pathways?  Just by bundling these concepts together we have not created something that is original - and concrete - enough to warrant patent protection.

Yet Amazon has been able to take a high-level software concept flow chart and turn it into a get-rich-quick scheme for themselves.  They have turned the rules of the game into the product itself, thus ensuring that anyone else who tries to create a method for one-click shopping will owe them money.

Perhaps I'm too harsh on Amazon.  After all, they simply used the system in place.  The patent office is where we should direct our concern.  If they continue to move in this direction, how hard will it be for us as game designers to continue to do our jobs?  What if a company like Activision patented a "method for pointing a weapon using a single mouse motion", thus ensuring that no other game could ever use the mouse as an aiming method?  It would be EXACTLY the same as what Amazon did, and it would be ruinous for our industry.

For the time being, my mouse remains firmly in my own control, and I can use it to shoot anyone I want in any shooting game I have.  Of course, given my advanced age I think I'll log off now and play a little Wolfenstein 3D.  I wonder if I can download that from Archie....

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