SOE: Reduced to Patent Trolls

Are you kidding me, SOE? You guys are a huge bunch of pricks. You patented my technique. I know you guys have a long history of basically using money to destroy competition, because hey, you have money, why not?

Because it’s wrong, and you guys are shit, that’s why.

First, take a look at this. Just a brief look. See the date at the top? September 12, 2003. Now take a look at this. Note the date it was filed? November 9, 2004.

This is relevant because the patent is a super-broad one — it patents the entire generalized idea explained in my article, and every obvious permutation they could think of. They actually have three different patents now, covering various elements of my meta-language idea.

The Boring Details

What does this mean? What’s the patent all about? In very simple terms, it makes translating games easier — in fact, it makes any grammatical construction easier — by abstracting away conjugations and different spellings of words.

Words have lots of conjugations. In English, a noun might have one form for singular and one for plural, e.g. “monster” versus “monsters”. Some nouns have gender, so they should be referred to as “he” or “she” or maybe “it”. And there’s always tons of crazy special cases. Suppose your game has a pair of sentient blue jeans… do you use “he” or “she” or “it”? No, you’d use “they”: “The pants come to life and start running! They flee to the north!” Great, that’s yet another weird special case. Getting all the possible special cases is hard.

The solution I described on GamaSutra simply makes all those details data-driven: you embed the various parts of speech right into your string tables, so that you don’t have to manually code all the different permutations in your game. A separate string-table-manager module can figure out how to conjugate entire sentences just by looking at the tags built into the various strings. The data is embedded via special characters and codes stuck into the strings.

This is really important when you want to support many languages with the same executable… you sure don’t want to have to write hundreds of C if-statements for all the different ways things can be put together in all the different languages you support! Putting this into data also makes it easier for the translators to do their job separately from your game coders… no game coder likes to take time away from their AI coding to add some more pronouns for the Italian version of the game. It’s a waste of time.

Yes, Yes, They Reworded It, Very Clever

Taking a look through the article and the patent papers, the similarities are quite striking. For instance, here’s my example set of meta-characters:

[m] = male (“he” or “him”)
[f] = female (“she” or “her”)
[i] = inanimate or gender-neutral (an “it”)
[p] = plural name (as in “those pants”)
[v] = starts with a vowel (so use “an” instead of “a”)
[n] = name (proper noun – don’t use “an”, “a”, or “the”)
[s] = ends in the letter ‘s’ (so use “‘” instead of “‘s” to make it possessive)

And here’s SOE’s example:

$: name (Bob) or base text
^: A proper possessive (Bob’s)
%: subject pronoun (I-you-he/she/it-we-you-they)
#: object pronoun (me-you-him/her/it-us-you-them)
&: possessive pronoun (my-your-his/her/its-our-your-their)
=: direct address (sir/sire/milord-madame/madam/milady)
+: count/number of the objects
<: indefinite article (a/an/some)
>: definite article (the)
*: used for locales other than the source locale
.about.: used for locales other than the source locale

Well I’m glad you went to the trouble of changing the example parts of speech and the little symbols, you thieving bastards. It makes all the difference in the world. No it doesn’t. You’re thieves.

The patent document certainly does go into more laborious detail than I did in the article. It points out all the obvious extrapolations: that a meta-language could store the permutations of speech in the noun strings rather than the final presentation strings, as my example setup did. The patent also drones on and on about every different configuration they could brainstorm, to make sure it covers everything in the known universe. But at its core, it’s theft. They stole it from my publication.

I know at least some people at SOE read my article because when I interviewed there years later for a contract gig, I mentioned it, and the people that interviewed me recalled it. (My wife Sandra actually worked for them for a year as a game producer, but I never did. And my wife never heard anything about the patenting of this idea while she was there… SOE’s a big company.) And really, why wouldn’t they have seen this article? It was back in 2003 and GamaSutra was king; everybody in the MMO industry checked GamaSutra religiously. It seems like it was the only industry source that people quoted back then.

The real question is, why wouldn’t their MMOG localization team have read my article, entitled “Localizing MMOGs”?

But SOE Didn’t Invent It

So here’s the thing, guys, this is prior art. My article describes this technique, which I had already successfully used on a published game prior to the article. I know the patent laws in the US are very squirrelly, and I’m not even remotely close to being a lawyer, but I don’t see how this patent could hold up.

The weirdest part of this patent is that it’s not even entirely my prior art. I solidified it, extrapolated a bit, and devised tools and techniques to work with it in a uniform way. But the underlying idea (of using meta-characters in strings to assist in string generation) is quite old… antique even. Whenever engineers have needed to solve this problem, they inevitably come up with this solution. It’s the only way to solve this problem. Hence the problem with SOE “owning” it.

I may have been the first to publicly describe this idea in English, but I wouldn’t be surprised if something like this was described in another language, since so many of the best translation companies are in Europe. When I explained this system to the company that translated Asheron’s Call 2, they already knew the basic idea. They said they had already worked on several other applications (some games, some not) that used similar techniques. I don’t remember most of the examples they mentioned, but one concrete example was Dungeon Siege by Gas Powered Games in 2000. That game used a primitive meta-language for their randomly-generated treasure items.

This is What SOE Does

What evidence do I have that SOE would steal this? Maybe they invented it at around the same time and just didn’t do any research, or they forgot that I had already described it a year earlier, and literally think they invented it. Weirder mistakes happen. I would like to assume they aren’t intentionally stealing my idea. But it is in fact their MO: whenever possible, they seem to use their  lawyers to screw over their competition.

I remember back in the day when Turbine and SOE were competing: Asheron’s Call 1 versus EverQuest 1. SOE did every dirty legal trick they could think of. Here’s one that haunted us years later:

http://www.trademarkia.com/empyrean-78069007.html

What’s that? Oh, just a trademark on the word “Empyrean.” What’s that for? Well it wasn’t intended to be used by SOE… it was just to screw over their competition. Asheron’s Call’s backstory had a progenitor race called the Empyreans. As soon as SOE found out about that, they [rightly] presumed Turbine would want to make an expansion pack with that word in it. So they trademarked it. They actually trademarked a lot of different words that Turbine might want to use. Trademarks are cheap, like $1000. So they just bought them up like candy.

This example had a somewhat ironic ending because by the time Turbine wanted to make an AC2 expansion pack, Turbine actually used SOE as their publisher! But even though SOE was publishing the game, Turbine still couldn’t use those words. Too much lawyer hassle to get the paperwork through. Ugh.

SOE, please. Come clean here. Do the right thing on these patents. I don’t even know what the “right thing” would be in this case. But do something. Don’t just be evil.

This is What Is Wrong With Everything

I know SOE isn’t the only big company that uses their lawyers for evil. And yes, I’m quite familiar with the old “we have to collect these patents in order to have leverage against other people’s patents” tripe. But it’s all tripe. It crushes indies’ hopes and dreams, and it’s not fair. I wish I knew how to help solve the problem. Over the years I’ve donated a fair amount to organizations like the EFF that sometimes go after overzealous patent trolls. But nothing has fundamentally changed despite a lot of donating and a lot of letters-to-my-congressperson. I feel completely helpless against this.

These SOE patents are horrible. Now I can no longer use the simple techniques I’ve known for a decade? Even though I was the first to formally describe it, publicly, well before SOE used the technique in a game or submitted a patent? This is terrible. Humiliating. Depressing.

Apparently Robert McEntee (who is listed on the patent) talked about this idea at GDC this year, calling it “his idea” and claiming to have invented it. I don’t even care about that. He can be the official owner forever for all I care. I just want to be able to use my technique.

I mean yeah, maybe the fact that it’s covered by my prior art means SOE couldn’t win a lawsuit against my use of the idea. But it would take a lawsuit to find out, which of course I can’t afford. And even if SOE wouldn’t bother to sue me, given that I have no money, it’s still a huge chilling effect. Now I can’t use this technique when I take contract gigs to set up localization for other people. What would I tell them? “Yeah, SOE patented this last year, but don’t worry, if they sue the bejeezus out of you, just point to this prior art.” No… those contract gigs are gone now. Oh, and the lengthy chapter I authored in the 2006 book Perspectives on Localization, which expanded on the ideas of the GamaSutra article? Yeah, don’t use that either, it was patented retroactively. I was quite proud of that article.

Worst of all? I was informed about this by a translation company who was distraught by the news. Variations of this technique are in common usage all over the world, and SOE now owns the rights to it in the US, somehow. Where does that put everyone else? Nobody knows; everybody’s worried.

I just wish there was a way to fix patents. I wish I could do something useful besides call SOE names and rant on a blog like a petulant child. But I can’t.

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17 Responses to SOE: Reduced to Patent Trolls

  1. Tiran Kenja says:

    Well. The thing about prior art is that it should really have been presented before the application was approved. It’s one of the primary reasons it take so long to get one approved.

    As for trademarks I am not a lawyer either. But I am pretty sure you loose the right to them if you don’t use it for anything. Just filling out the form and paying the registration fee is not enough to block everyone else from using it. Especially if they have more of a claim to it.

  2. Ravious says:

    If you think your article can smoke their patent you can pay for a reexamination. It’s a pretty high bar for evidence, and it’s not cheap for you.

  3. Chris says:

    Does a US patent stop publication or hosting in the rest of the world?

  4. Bryant says:

    You might try these guys:

    http://linuxdefenders.org/

    I don’t know if they’d be interested in a non-Linux-related patent, but it can’t hurt to ask.

  5. Stabs says:

    Do you want to contest their ownership of this?

    If you do then the first thing to do is write to SOE outlining your position and your prior claim. It may be that a junior employee stole your idea and passed it off as his own without his managers knowing. It is not impossible that they might make an agreement with you.

    Regarding US law it looks like you are in a strong position. US is a first to invent jurisdiction not a first to file jurisdiction. You documented the technique and used it before they filed. It’s yours. (Legally, not just morally).

    Useful sites for you include:
    http://www.inventions.org/ Inventors Assistance League (a charity helping inventors)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_to_file_and_first_to_invent

    Oh and take this blog article down. If you want to do a deal with them this article won’t help.

  6. Pingback: Classes Trolls Can Be In EQ: Shadowknight, Shaman, Warrior, Patent Lawyer

  7. JohnE says:

    I mostly agree with your point, but for different reasons than you’ve stated.

    I’ve worked on MMO’s for years and have seen several variations on the system you described in your post. I don’t think SOE should be able to patent this because I’ve seen it in more or less ‘general’ practice in at least 5 different MMO’s on which I have worked.

  8. Umm, not me says:

    Given that your technique was published more than a year in advance of the patent application date, you (and anyone else) can continue to use it forever with no fear of retribution. Your only danger is if you make improvements that are covered in this patent. And before you get too upset about the patent, reading patents is an artform. Best only practised by attourneys. If you are going to read them, read up on how to read them first ie. it is only the claims at the top that matter.

  9. The real problem with patents is that they cost a lot. Not necessarily to file a patent, but just to defend against one. According to lawyers I’ve talked to, the simplest patent defense with a clearly open-and-shut case will cost about $1,000,000 to defend, and the price increases from there. This fee would kill a smaller company, and a patent troll can easily offer to settle for, say, $700,000 and a large company like Sony will see that as a bargain compared to the million or more they might spend otherwise. Unfortunately, when larger companies settle that gives the patent troll ammunition to continue lawsuits against other targets.

    I’ve worked on a few patent defense cases, and I know some of the expense that goes into it. Funny enough, I was helping to defend Sony against a patent in the online space. Guess the abused easily become the abusers.

    Anyway, Eric, you might try contacting the EFF. They like to bust software patents like this: http://w2.eff.org/patent/wp.php Can’t hurt to give a call, especially if you’ve donated in the past. Fight the good fight!

  10. ScytheNoire says:

    Congratulations on presenting Example #2,878,024 why the patent system is broken and doesn’t work.

  11. Amit Patel says:

    Back in the 1990s and maybe even earlier, MUDs (a.k.a. text-based MMOGs!) used special characters for constructing text, with articles, verb and noun number (singular/plural), pronouns, gender, possessives, etc. That way the text template could be kept as plain data instead of code, and you could plug in different players and locations and objects to construct the text. In 1997 I ported some code from JaysHouseMOO (jhcore in the Debian Linux distribution) to Pythonic MOO (which had the unfortunate acronym of POO): http://theory.stanford.edu/~amitp/Python/code/msg.py . However my code was not intended for language translation but mere text construction. LambdaMOO had a simpler message system back in 1993 and probably earlier. I don’t know the history of MUDs but I’m guessing the system used by these MOOs derives from earlier work in MUDs.

  12. LXj says:

    Intereting, after reading your article, I stumbled into this: Supreme Court agreed to make it easier to invalidate patents due to prior art https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2010/11/supreme-court-decide-standard-proving-invalidity

  13. Umm, not me says:

    My experience with a number of patent attourneys has gone as follows:

    I receive a threatening letter charging infringement with a large $ licensing fee schedule attached. I make a photocopy of 1/2″ of research papers from the ’80′s that describe the algorithms used in our product. I send a letter along with the documents that says “I haven’t looked at your patent, but I believe the attached documents thoroughly describe the operation of our product. If you believe there is a specific area of your patent that we are infringing that is not described in these documents, please let me know. Best Regards,…”

    I either don’t hear back, or I get a nice letter that says, “sorry, we were mistaken.”

  14. jonathon says:

    Take a look at OSIS, ThML, UFM, USM, and the other markup languages for Bibles and other sacred literature. Between them, everything described in that patent is covered.

  15. cored says:

    The bar for patents is far too low. What was once a mechanism for protecting inventions and intellectual properties has become a mechanism for large companies to stifle competition.

    Even if a small company or person is in the right, it is often simply too expensive to combat the legal arm of a company like SOE, or Microsoft, cough cough Apple.

    We sorely need some reform in this area, and since the House is not going to be any help any time soon, pretty much our only hope is a Supreme Court ruling. That’s not a lot of hope.

  16. Strav says:

    This is amusing. As an earlier commenter pointed out, this stuff has been used in M* for quite some time.

    As we all know, EQ was heavily based on the Sojourn DikuMUD. Sojourn (and it’s descendants Toril and Duris, which inherited the code base) used that exact system for that exact purpose. I personally worked on that code, I know it’s there. (and have copies of it).

    I’m not surprised that this code made it into EQ (and hence the SOE patent monster) but it’s definitely derived from prior art dating back to the early to mid 90s.

  17. Todd Berkebile says:

    I make it a rule not to read software patents. For one, you’re better off not knowing. For two, they are too frustrating.