Commentary

VR Gets Bloodied By The Law

In the modern age, each new disruptive technology inevitably has a watershed moment: its first, incomprehensibly massive, lawsuit decision.

Much as Android was dogged for years with decisions and appeals regarding the Oracle vs. Google lawsuit, VR firm and Facebook-owned Oculus was just handed down a judgement in the Zenimax lawsuit against it.

Oculus was found liable for $300 million in damages, with ex-CEO Brendan Iribe personally liable for an additional $150 million, and founder Palmer Luckey liable for $50 million.

Despite the significant award, the result is far short of the $6 billion in damages ZeniMax was seeking, and was largely a success for Oculus on the core issue that mattered: use of proprietary technology.

The suit focused mostly on the very early work and interactions of John Carmack’s regarding Oculus Rift. Carmack, one of the creators of the classic game DOOM, is well known in the game development world as a brilliant programmer and technologist. He had been very excited by VR and what Luckey was working on, and footage of him talking about a very early prototype in 2012 even appeared in the original pitch video on the crowdfunding platform (as well as a number of the early Kickstarter “updates”).

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Eventually, Carmack left ZeniMax to become CTO of Oculus. ZeniMax accused Carmack of having stolen source code he had worked on for VR while employed there, in order to jumpstart the Oculus development. Carmack claimed he built everything fresh at Oculus, though using similar concepts to the work he had been experimenting with while at ZeniMax.

The court agreed that Carmack did not steal and use his prior work.

So why the half-a-billion-dollar decision? Luckey had violated the ZeniMax NDA he had signed at that early stage, and had used the logos, and trademarks from DOOM and other Id Software properties (which were owned by ZeniMax) in promoting the Rift.

While nowhere near as academically interesting as the Oracle vs Google case regarding Android, the dollar amounts should be particularly interesting, as they are within spitting distance of the damages sought in the Android suit.

It’s quite remarkable that less than five years ago, VR was essentially a Kickstarter project attempting to cobble together a million bucks. Now, it’s a dominant trend at CES and has a billion-dollar lawsuit on its record. And still, VR marches ever onward.

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