Oculus Rift vs. ZeniMax

Michael Hicks bunnyhops his way around gaming’s biggest lawsuit

Michael Hicks
20th February 2017
Credit: Oculus VR, Facebook

At the start of the month, ZeniMax, owner of game studios Bethesda and id Software, was awarded a staggering $500 million as the long-fought legal battle between it and Oculus Rift-manufacturers Oculus VR, and their parent company Facebook, finally came to a close.

The vicious battle between the two titans of the tech world centred around several issues: copyright infringement, misappropation of trade secrets, a breach of a non-disclosure agreement and a host of other issues which pointed to Oculus being an unfair competitor. Oculus was found guilty of four of the seven accounts they had been charged with.

The story began when legendary developer John Carmack (the creator of Doom) joined Oculus in 2014. Carmark began promoting the then-fledgling VR headset by pledging that the remaster of Doom 3 would support VR. The basis of ZeniMax’s infringement claims were that this promotion occurred without permission from ZeniMax (the owners of developer id Software and the Doom series). In addition to this, ZeniMax also claimed that the Oculus Rift lacked several key features, such as a head mount and motion sensors, prior to Carmack’s involvement with Oculus in 2012. ZeniMax claimed that Carmack took with him valuable trade secrets with him to Oculus, and utilised those in the development of the Rift. According to ZeniMax, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey acknowledged in writing that ZeniMax was the owner of an experimental VR headset in development in early 2012, and also all rights to Doom; a claim that brought the legitimacy and honesty of Carmack’s contributions to the Rift into question. Oculus, according to ZeniMax, had stolen millions of dollars of trade secrets and staff, and had made away with billions.

'Oculus, according to ZeniMax, had stolen millions of dollars of trade secrets and staff, and had made away with billions'

According to Oculus, the key elements of the Rift headset were well in place before any possible involvement with ZeniMax, supported by photos taken in 2010 of a college-age Luckey and the first prototypes of the headset. They also state that Carmack’s involvement was a hell of a lot more minimal then ZeniMax were claiming; that the NDA signed had never been finalised, that their use of Doom 3 footage fell under fair use, and that the company stayed on friendly, talking terms with ZeniMax throughout development of the Rift; only hearing of any potential legal issues in 2014, after being purchased by Facebook for $3 billion.

Oculus’ version of the story wasn’t so convincing to the jury, and demoing a unit at E3 found in in breach of his non-disclosure and was punished to the tune of $200 million. While this seems like a huge amount, it is important to note that ZeniMax was initially seeking reparations to the tune of $2–4 bilion. Oculus were only found guilty of specific breaches of contracts between the two companies, and not guilty of piracy of software that built an entire industry. Carmack later stated that ZeniMax claimed that Carmack had literally copied code, and had hired computer science academics to explain complex technological issues to the jury in a way that would benefit ZeniMax’s case.

The jury found that a few lines of code had been copied and that ZeniMax’s copyrights had been infringed, but they declared that ZeniMax’s trade secrets had not only been upheld, but weren’t actually that secret in the first place, due to the number of companies working on similar headsets during the same period of time. While Oculus could have stood to lose far more than they did; whether companies choose to take this as a company losing $500 million due to VR, the result of this suit could potentially jeopardise the whole VR industry, with companies unwilling to invest in VR for fear of a fiasco similar to this one.

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