Sunday, August 30, 2009

Patents and games

Note: I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

Non-electronic and video games are rarely patented, both because it is expensive ($3,000-$10,000) and because a patent only protects a particular expression of an idea. Ideas alone are not patentable, though a business process may be. At least, that's how it is supposed to work. Patents are supposed to protect inventors from predatory companies who steal their product (not their idea) and mass produce and undersell the originator--something that used to be quite common long ago. Patents protect a particular expression of an idea in a product. Further, you're not supposed to be able to patent the obvious, because it's obvious. But somewhere along the line the patent office in the USA lost track of what it was about, and started to let people patent ideas, sometimes obvious ones, rather than particular products. One well-known game patent is for "tapping", turning a card sideways, in Magic: the Gathering. TAPping probably shouldn't be patented, and I don't think it would stand up in court because it's so obvious; further, other CCG makers seem to get around it, probably by giving it a different name.

So the telephone patent, if it had not actually expired, could not be used to stop Skype. BUT if the patent office had acted then as now, the patent would be for any long-distance communication over a wire (even though it was already done with the telegraph, of course), and would interfere.

I read some time ago that the patent office was going to allow someone to patent a particular plotline for a story. The patent-holder was then going to require royalties (in the manner of "patent trolls") from anyone whose story vaguely resembled that plot. This would be a true disaster, as well as just plain stupid, but I've heard nothing more about it so maybe the patent office had an attack of sanity.

Here is where the bull-in-a-chinashop behavior of the patent office has interfered with games. At GenCon Mike Gray of Hasbro pointed out that the big problem with non-electronic games, especially in the mass market, is that someone has to read the rules. I myself have advocated including a DVD in the game box with a video that is, for all practical purposes, someone teaching the game owner how to play the game. Publishers (including Hasbro) don't want to go for that, because of the expense. But Mike told me that the idea of someone calling an automated phone number to be taught how to play a game had been patented! This is a patent of an idea, which should not be allowed (especially because it is obvious), not a patent of a particular product; but the result is that anyone using this method would be required to pay royalties. And game players (and designers) suffer as a result.

I have tried but failed to find this patent through Google. What I did find was pretty interesting, some game patents that I'd say are "really strange", or really obvious.

1 comment:

Yehuda Berlinger said...

I've been tracking and summarizing ridiculous game patents on my blog and Purple Pawn for the last several years, if you're interested.