Back in 2005 I wrote a Designer's
Notebook column called "The End of Copyright," warning that copyright, as
a property concept, is probably on its way out. It's a "right"
that was invented out of nowhere after the invention of the printing
press, and it will probably fade away some time in the next hundred
years or so.
Or at least, the business model by which such innovations
are exploited will change substantially, and making copies will no longer
be considered wrong. (Oddly, I believe far more strongly in the European
concept of moral rights than I do in copyright, but that's
a story for another time.)
This time my ire is directed
at gameplay patents. Patents are different from copyrights in important
ways. They're a lot harder and more expensive to get (it often takes
a year or more for one to be granted), and they don't last nearly as
long. A copyright, under US law, lasts until the author's death plus
70 years, which means that an author's great-great-great grandchildren
can still be raking in the bucks from a work they had no hand in creating.
For those created by a corporation, the term is 95 years from publication.
By contrast, patents expire after 20 years... but even 20 years is a
ridiculously long time in the video game industry. Furthermore, patents
restrict any use of an idea, not just a particular expression of an
idea as a copyright does. They grant much broader control over the invention.
To receive a patent in the
United States, an invention must be new, useful, and non-obvious. A
patent consists of a claim, or more than one, regarding an invention
that the inventor wishes to protect. Usually a patent contains multiple
claims for different possible variants of the invention.
the Namco patent on load-time mini-games (US Patent Number 5,718,632), as originally used in the PlayStation 1 version of Ridge Racer,
contains 16 claims, many of which are almost identical to one another.
Each claim is a description of what was invented. The terms in this
description are called the limitations of the claim -- that is,
the boundaries of what is claimed.
Another device or process infringes
a patent only when it contains every single limitation of one or more
of the claims. If a single limitation of a claim is missing, that claim
has not been infringed.
Unfortunately, however, most patents are written
as broadly as possible, with large numbers of claims to cover various
different ways of implementing the invention. This makes it difficult
to avoid infringing a patent by making minor changes to the invention.