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Defining Games: Raph Koster's Game Grammar
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Defining Games: Raph Koster's Game Grammar

October 19, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 7 of 7

I also wanted to ask you about patents, because you mentioned...

RK: (laughs)

CN: Everyone loves patents!

Well, he does!

RK: Well, no, I said, "Evil but necessary."

I know, but -- and this is going to sound combative -- it does seem strange to me that we're in a conference where everybody's trying to help each other out and stuff, but if you have an idea that's so good that you're going to patent it and keep it, then that can't ever be shared and nobody can do it ever again.

RK: Actually, that isn't how patents work. What a patent does is you say, "Hey, I have this idea, so I'm laying a stake in the ground. I'm laying claim to this." And they don't let you lay claim to it for very long. It's twenty years, which -- compared to the other kinds of IP thing -- is microscopic. Copyright is insane at this point. Trademarks are infinite! So a twenty-year patent is like peanuts.

Even then, it means that you lay claim to it, but it doesn't say anything about whether or not you'll let other people use it. You can patent something and then say, "I put this patent in the public domain." You can patent something and say, "Go nuts. If people use this idea, I'm going to turn a blind eye." You can say, "Oh, here's a patent, and if you want to build on it, then just give me a little cut, because hey, I spent a lot of money to come up with this."

CN: Midway does that with ghost cars in racing games.

RK: And then there's people who outright say, "No, you can't come in." It's when people use it really punitively that it's really obnoxious. And it is really obnoxious, I completely agree with that. So they can be abused, absolutely. It's just like copyrights and trademarks can be abused. Like every time Disney makes somebody paint over Mickey Mouse on some preschool wall -- give me a break, right? I have the same reaction when patents are abused, especially when patents are granted for obvious stuff.

This is just a generic problem with patents -- there's too many bad patents. That's a challenge. But if somebody really does invent something totally earth-shattering, or invent something not necessarily earth-shattering -- just a very specific little highly useful thing. It's like, "We made this cool thing and it's a really useful tool!" They should be able to sell that, and not have somebody just copy it and run with it. So they are kind of necessary. Greg Boyd gave a great talk on legal issues.

I didn't get to see that one.

RK: I've blogged it. One of the points he made about patents is that part of the reason why they're necessary for startup companies is because patents are your leveling up. They're you going, "And we have, in fact, invented something that's been vetted by outside people as being actual stuff!" Boom. There's one. And boom -- there's another, and boom, there's another.

What that does is that it means from a crass point of view, it means your company value goes up. It's like, "Look, they've done work!" It also means that... let's say you make something. Somebody else is going to come along and work in the same space. You've kind of staked out an area around yourself. It's like, "Oh, they're doing that." It forces the other company to be more creative, rather than just cloning everything. It's got lots of tradeoffs. They are evil in many, many ways, but...

It's hard to see past the whole punitive thing. It's certainly arguable that -- and we don't have to talk about the specifics of it -- PlayStation versus Immersion... did they really copy them? Who knows?

RK: Who knows? And obviously I don't know either. The thing is, in a lot of these cases, it comes down to, "Should someone have been allowed to patent the idea of a controller that wiggles? Or are we actually arguing about the way the motor works, that makes it wiggle in a really good way?" Those are pretty different kinds of questions.

I think most people, if you said, "Well no, they invented this really badass motor and it's inside this little black box. You really should check it out. They came up with a whole new way of making wiggly motors," most people actually won't freak out. "Good for them. They own that. That's awesome." Most people wouldn't be freaked out. It's when they turn around and say, "No! This applies to every wiggly device in the universe!" that people go, "No it doesn't!" It's a tradeoff.

I guess that's the concern. Someone patented moving a camera through a 3D world.

RK: I know all about that one. In my professional opinion, prior art existed on that one. (laughs)

And if what you're going to be patenting is things like, "I invented this specific way of storing data in caches!" it's...

RK: Yeah, we're not going to be patenting... no. None of our programmers like software patents either. So when we go to put together a patent, we do it in such a way where we go, "Well, we're going to patent something that we actually feel comfortable patenting." Actually, you can get in trouble for... it costs you tons of money. It costs you tens of thousands of dollars. So going to do a patent on something stupid is stupid. It's true -- sometimes people angle for these big things on purpose, to try and lock up something. It's like, "Oh, well... You really shouldn't have." So there's no doubt the system is flawed.

CN: A common argument is that the patent office really isn't hip to the groove of what tech is doing.

RK: It's gotten worse for them, too, because the pace has increased so much. It's gotten harder for them. That's absolutely true. So to some degree, there are some benefits to you as a company. The right thing for our company to do -- and I realize that it's hard for us to think of companies doing the right thing, but it is actually possible -- is to be responsible about how you use the system, and patent things responsibly, not stupidly, indiscriminately, over-aggressively, and graspingly.

Article Start Previous Page 7 of 7

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