Patents were invented for a noble purpose: protect the creative ideas of an inventor and encourage new ideas. However, as we’ve seen in the past from company patent wars like Apple and Samsung, patents can be used to hoard general ideas to stifle competition instead. If such an attitude made their way to the games market, would games suffer then too?
Brianna Wu, indie developer and cofounder of Giant SpaceCat, may have to deal with the bad side of patent law. Wu’s recent game Revolution 60 has a real possibility of violating a patent held by EA. But what for? A space opera where your choices end in three colors? A feminist take on the football genre called Maiden? (ya see what I did there?) No, the infamous Twitter feminist could theoretically face a possible lawsuit over something many could be forgiven for thinking wasn’t patentable. A dialog wheel.
If you aren’t familiar with the terminology, dialog wheels are often seen in RPGs for giving players an assortment of possible responses in conversation. Any number of shapes, though radials are the most common, can be used to display the various options your character has for speaking to other characters. And Electronic Arts has a patent that covers all of them.
Filed back in 2007, Electronic Arts Inc. owns the patent on “a graphical interface for interactive dialog.” If that sounds vague and open ended, well, that’s because it is. EA’s graphical interface patent stretches so far as to include rectangles, stars, or anything that could be considered “alternative designs.” It also covers any number of dialog options too.
It will be recognized that many different geometries are suitable and may be used, and that a different number of slots 14 may be used. Also, it will be recognized that alternative designs, such as a rectangle, pie design or a multi-pointed star design, may be substituted for the band 16 and are still considered to be in the spirit and scope of the disclosed invention.
The patent doesn’t even have to specify how this information is selected. Wu’s game, as an example, is on iOS. Meaning unlike console and PC, which select choices via buttons and mouse respectively, phones and tablets work vastly different from those input options, opting instead for physically selecting the option. Even still, the sweeping patent covers this vastly different method with the vague term “input.”
the computer program comprising: […] program code for receiving an input indication from the user
The patent even covers cutting off others in conversation. Yes, you can actually patent that in software. Software works differently from physical things when being patented. Physical goods can be patented by implementation. A rocking chair, for example, cannot be patented. However, you can patent the specific way you made the rocking chair, such as how you achieved the rocking motion (type of chair bottom, weight placement, etc.) But as far as software is concerned, implementation is in the code, and as code is closed source, the traditional patent system doesn’t work. Instead, you patent the features of software, for example the Apple slide to unlock feature. It’s what the user experiences that’s being patented. What this means is companies can patent all rocking chairs, instead of just a specific method of chairs rocking.
But Miss Wu’s game is not the only potential patent violator. Think of how many games you’ve played that have dialog options resembling this. Final Fantasy XIII-2, Rise of the Argonauts, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and other games could all be argued as violating patent as well, and EA could go about suing them if it wished. Instead of patenting how the team accomplished a dialog wheel, in code, thus protecting the creative work that went into it, the dialog itself is patented, so even if a game has a vastly different way of accomplishing this task, if it looks like a dialog wheel it potentially violates the patent.
Neither side is without fault. Wu, Sqaure Enix, and others are responsible for making sure their products are not breaching any patents. EA can’t be expected to look after every single game, they should only be expected to look after their own property. But patent law needs at least as much change as necessary to ensure it is a tool to encourage creativity, not diminish it. Imagine working on a game for three years only to get a patent claim because that metal shape at the bottom can be called an “alternative design”.
We’ve reached out to Brianna Wu and asked how she feels about this patent law. We’ve also reached out to EA regarding this wide scale patent and asked for their perspective on the matter. So far, neither parties have replied, but we’ll provide an update if either parties reply.
What are your thoughts? Do you feel these patent laws are fair? Or should they be changed? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!