Patently absurd

Who owns the gaming features you take for granted?

Patents establish legal ownership of an idea. It%26rsquo;s not just for bragging rights - it%26rsquo;s to stop other people profiting from something you claim to have invented. It%26rsquo;s a big deal in videogameland, not least because it keeps inventions in the hands of one publisher.

Games from other stables can use patented ideas, but they%26rsquo;ll have to pay the patent holder for a license. Thus, patents shape games hugely. If you%26rsquo;ve ever moaned that Generic Shooter X doesn%26rsquo;t contain the ghost-monkey-juggling element you thought was done so well in Run-Of-The-Mill Shooter V, it%26rsquo;s probably because some other publisher has laid a legalese-shrouded claim to it. Here are a few unsettling gems from the US Patent Office archives.

Patent number 6,200,138
%26ldquo;Game display method, moving direction indicating method, game apparatus and drive simulating apparatus%26rdquo;

What does it cover? Driving around a city with a big arrow showing you where to go. And there are characters wandering about the city, but you can%26rsquo;t kill %26rsquo;em.

Who owns it? Sega, who used it for Crazy Taxi, and smacked down EA in 2003 for doing something remarkably similar in The Simpsons: Hit %26amp; Run (with a big green arrow replaced by a big yellow pointing hand).

Patent number 6,275,213
%26ldquo;Tactile feedback man-machine interface device%26rdquo;

What does it cover? It%26rsquo;s nothing to do with hot robot sex, sadly. It%26rsquo;s everything to do with rumble and force feedback effects, now de rigueur in pads, joysticks and the like.

Who owns it? Immersion, specialists in %26lsquo;haptic technology%26rsquo; who even had a crack at a force feedback mouse a few years back. Rather more successfully, they forced Sony to pay up over $22m for using rumble tech in their PlayStation controllers.

Patent number 5,823,879
%26ldquo;Network gaming system%26rdquo;

What does it cover? It%26rsquo;s mostly about online blackjack, but the key bit is a ranking system - in other words, arranging players by means of ladders, setting them against each other as they compete to climb to the top.

Who owns it? One Sheldon F. Goldberg. He%26rsquo;s resisted going after the big guns of multiplayer matchmaking, but has been known to demand painful payments from small developers or publishers who couldn%26rsquo;t possibly afford a big legal battle, and so have to settle or agree to buy a license.

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