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Major Lawsuit Against Oculus VR Reveals Tech Culture Clash

on Wednesday, May. 21st

What had been a public relations feud between a virtual reality start-up and a game publishing giant turned into a lawsuit today.

ZeniMax, publisher for studios like Bethesda (The Elder Scrolls Online) and id Software (Doom) is seeking damages on seven different counts ranging from copyright infringement to breach of contract. The target of the lawsuit is Oculus VR, the Irvine, CA company that is slated to be purchased by Facebook for a cool two billion dollars.

At the heart of the complaint is the assertion that ZeniMax provided much of the key technology that fueled the meteoric rise of the Oculus Rift VR headset, a device that has captured the imagination of gamers the world over.

The complaint filed with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas today by definition gives only one side of the story: ZeniMax’s.

Spokespeople for Oculus VR, in a statement to Engadget, responded to the suit by saying:

”The lawsuit filed by ZeniMax has no merit whatsoever. As we have previously said, ZeniMax did not contribute to any Oculus technology. Oculus will defend these claims vigorously.”

That assertion, it would seem, depends largely on your point of view.

Between the lines of the complaint a culture clash is evident. On one side is the domain of engineers and enthusiasts happily collaborating on the Next Big Thing. The other perspective belongs to the realm of lawyers: non-disclosure agreements and employment contracts that stipulate that all intellectual property generated by an employee belong to the corporation that pays their bills.

This is the fundamental culture clash within the tech industry, and since it is the lawyers who literally write the rules the claims, if proven true, are grim for Oculus.

At the heart of the matter is the status of John Carmack, arguably the greatest living video game coder. Carmack assisted Oculus found Palmer Luckey heavily in the early days of the development of the Rift. This is something no one denies. In fact this month’s Wired cover story makes it a major story point, one that Oculus VR is proud of. However, as Carmack was an employee of ZeniMax at the time he was working on the Rift, that may very well give the video game publisher major claims on the Rift device.

Carmack insists that there’s no ZeniMax code in the Rift now, but intellectual property and contracts are trickier than that. ZeniMax is claiming that Carmack and other former employees who jumped ship for Oculus brought with them trade secrets. Knowledge that they would not have if the publisher hadn’t footed the bill.

That’s a valid depiction of the world from a contracts perspective. The engineers themselves may see things differently: a corporate structure that was uninterested moving forward on a passion project, for instance. As Oculus pulls its own response together there may be disclosure of the extent to which other game publishers—such as Valve—assisted the development of the technology without the kinds of demands for equity stakes that ZeniMax claims to have made.

Unfortunately for those who sympathize with the engineer mindset (disclosure: myself included) that doesn’t change the thorny reality of the contracts.

The oddest thing about the complaint filed today is how much it reads like a press release. There is some definite shade being thrown on Oculus founder Luckey, which the complaint revels in characterizing as “college aged” at the time he began development of the Rift, which the complaint refers to as “primitive” and “crude” before Carmack got his hands on it. Much of this language is likely aimed at the court of public opinion as it is at the District court. The filing is as much a character hit job on Palmer Luckey as it is a lawsuit.

ZeniMax, after all, is in the business of making money from a consumer group known for creating huge backlashes to a company’s actions. With the major gaming trade show just around the corner—the Electronic Entertainment Expo—ZeniMax is fighting for hearts and minds as well as dollars. That’s a difficult thing to do when a case stands on what most laymen view as “technicalities.”

This suit will have major ramifications for the development of virtual reality whether it goes to trial or is settled. Yet its cultural impact has the potential to go beyond affecting the birth of a new medium.

There is a conversation that should be going on about the status of employees in major corporations. Should we allow contracts to exist that make the fruit of a worker’s labor be the sole property of the employer? Does that effectively turn employees into a kind of indentured servant? Who, after all, owns what’s in your head?

In this case it may turn out that enough ZeniMax resources—money, trade secrets and the like—were used to render the more philosophical questions moot. However the potential exists that the degree of relief ZeniMax is—or isn’t—entitled to rests squarely with an assessment of who owned John Carmack’s wizard-like imagination in 2012.

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