Worlds.com CEO Thom Kidrin is putting the entire virtual worlds industry on notice: His company claims the idea of a scalable virtual world with thousands of users is its patented intellectual property, and Thom told us he intends to sue anyone who refuses to enter into licensing negotiations — including giants such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, a property of Activision Blizzard (ATVI).
Already, Korean gaming firm NCSoft, maker of City of Heroes and Guild Wars, has been sued by Worlds. (In East Texas no less, a jurisdiction infamous in intellectual property circles for plaintiff-friendly rulings in patent cases.)
Thom told us if he succeeds in his litigation, he “absolutely” intends to pursue follow-up suits against industry leaders Second Life and WoW.
Last December, when hitherto-unknown Worlds.com claimed to hold a patent for the virtual worlds idea dating from the 1990s, we were highly sceptical. Whatever one thinks of Second Life, there’s no doubt that service was the brainchild of Linden Lab founder Philip Rosedale, who pitched the idea around Silicon Valley for years before gaining VC funding to make it happen.
But Worlds.com’s Thom filled us in on his backstory: Back in 1997, a developer created the Steven Spielberg-backed Starbright World, part of the Starlight Starbright Foundation‘s work with seriously ill children. Even in the fledgling virtual worlds industry, very few people heard of Starbright World because its creators shunned publicity, seeing their product as a private wonderland for sick kids.
Eventually a collection of Starbright patents, which don’t cover virtual worlds per se but an architecture for enabling thousands of simultaneous users in a 3D virtual space, passed from the original creators to the current Worlds.com management. Lawyers from General Patent Corporation encouraged the Worlds.com team to aggressively pursue licensing deals.
Thom insists he’s not out to put anyone out of business, he just wants to be paid licensing fees for what he considers his lawful intellectual property. But we can’t imagine the potential targets of any patent infringement action will interpret the demand for licensing fees as anything less than a legal shakedown.
We consulted legal experts like Virtual Law author Ben Duranske about the case, and Worlds.com may have a tough time in court based on a wealth of “prior art” available to any patent defence.
But we’ll keep a close eye on this one as it progresses through the courts. Whenever issues of who owns a technology and how much it’s worth are decided by judges and juries, the results are always unpredictable.