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The Ten Most Important Video Game Patents

January 19, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 6 Next

10. Ones That Save the Day

A patent’s primary purpose is to preserve an inventor’s space; to let the inventor keep his/her invention, and to keep others from stealing it. So any patent that fulfills this purpose deserves to be listed.

Just ask Nintendo. In the early 1990’s, Nintendo was riding a wave of popularity with its NES™ console (a.k.a. the “Famicom,” shorthand for Family Computer, the name used when it was originally released in Japan). To keep control over its business, Nintendo built a security program into its console. Nintendo’s security program (referred to as the 10NES software) was a combination of “lock” software embedded into a chip in the NES gaming console, and “key” software in each Nintendo game cartridge.

The lock and key send synchronized encoded data streams back and forth which unlock the console when an authorized game is inserted. When an unauthorized game is inserted, the console remains locked, thus preventing game manufacturers for designing NES-compatible games without receiving keys from Nintendo.

Developers were upset that Nintendo was forcing them to pay money for a license to develop games for the NES console. Atari was so upset that it refused. Instead of paying, Atari simply copied the 10NES software from records in the U.S. Copyright Office. Litigation was soon to follow1.

From U.S. Pat. No. 4,799,635

Irrespective of the fact that Atari lied in order to get the U.S. Copyright Office to release the records, Atari won the copyright infringement portion of the lawsuit. Nintendo, however, had the foresight to also get patent protection on its 10NES software--U.S. Pat. No. 4,799,635. The patent was determined to be valid, and a jury determined that Atari infringed the patent.

So, rather than having to sit by and watch an unlicensed competitor make and sell unauthorized games because its copyright claims fell, Nintendo was able to rely on its patent to preserve control over the NES. The parties eventually settled the case, and Nintendo has since become a dominant player in the U.S. console market. Who knows if Nintendo could have pulled this off if it lost control over the NES?

9. Ones That Pave the Way to the Next Generation

If the advertising is any indication, the “next generation” of console gaming is mostly defined by incredible graphics. Anyone who remembers playing games in the early console days, where a player character was represented by a simple block (remember Adventure on the Atari 2600?), can’t help but be amazed by the graphics available in today’s games. The new sports games even model individual facial hairs and drops of sweat!

Today’s phenomenal graphics owe a debt of gratitude to the legions of innovators and inventions that gradually evolved and improved console gaming graphics. So as a tribute, we include a console gaming graphics patent that created waves with most of the heavyweights in the early console days - Atari, Mattel, Coleco and Nintendo.

U.S. Patent No. 4,026,555, filed in 1975, describes an early television display device that used bitmapped graphics to render a variety of types of images. This was described in the patent as an improvement over prior systems, which offered limited variety and actually relied on physical overlays stuck to the television screen for some of the visuals. The following figure from the patent shows an example of what was possible without the use of overlays:

The ‘555 patent’s invention was commercialized by Atari, Mattel and Coleco, but Nintendo refused to take a license for its NES. The owners of the patent, Alpex Computer Corp., sued Nintendo, and in 1994, won a judgment of $253,641,555.00 in damages and interest for infringement of their patent. That’s a chunk of change.

On appeal, however, Nintendo was successful in arguing that the patent was narrow enough that it did not cover the particular graphic technique used in the NES. Specifically, the ‘555 patent described a RAM-based technique that mapped the entire screen, while Nintendo’s system used a shift-register approach in which individual registers handled individual portions of the screen.

The appeals court looked at some statements that the ‘555 patent’s inventors made to the Patent and Trademark Office in originally getting the patent, and concluded that the inventors had distinguished their invention over such shift register-based techniques2.

1. Atari Games Corp. v. Nintendo of Am., Inc., 975 F.2d 832 (Fed. Cir. 1992).

2. Alpex Computer Corp. v. Nintendo Co.,102 F.3d 1214 (Fed. Cir. 1996)

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