NCsoft CEO Kim Taek-jin
By Kim Tong-hyung
Computer games publisher NCsoft built its reputation on action games featuring mythical creatures, aliens and other bizarre fantasy characters. However, back in the real world, the company seems to have encountered an equally quirky foe in a patent troll.
The Korean gaming giant finds itself entangled in a patent dispute with U.S.-based Worlds.com, which filed a suit last week in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.
Worlds.com, a developer of online technologies, claims to have invented a ``system and method for enabling users to interact in virtual space'' back in 1995 and was granted a patent for the concept in 2007.
Critics argue that the patent, based on the loose concept of ``highly scalable architecture for a three-dimensional graphical, multi-user, interactive virtual world system,'' could theoretically put every 3D online application under legal threat.
There doesn't seem to be a clear reason for Worlds.com to file its first complaint against NCsoft as opposed to other companies, and there is a possibility that the current suit is the first of many to come. And if past court rulings are any indication, East Texas is not a place where non-American firms want to find themselves involved in patent disputes.
``We haven't received the court papers yet and we haven't analyzed the patent,'' said an NCsoft spokesman, who declined to speak further on the subject.
A Seoul-based patent lawyer said Worlds.com is apparently a ``patent troll,'' or an opportunistic company that enforces its patents on those who infringe aggressively despite lacking the intention to manufacture and market the product.
``Worlds.com is likely to be more interested in getting paid in a huge settlement than shutting down NCsoft's games,'' he said.
``This is certainly an annoying situation for NCsoft, because if Worlds.com's patent claims are true, most of the Korean company's massively multiplayer online game (MMO) products would fall under the category. The whole process would cost NCsoft time, money and effort, and the company is certainly an easier opponent than bigger players such as Blizzard Entertainment.''
Ncsoft's concern is that East Texan courts have a reputation for being weighted toward plaintiffs in patent disputes. Earlier this year, Nintendo lost a $21 million patent suit to an East Texas company, Anascape, for violating a patent the plaintiff had on handheld devices, including controllers for Wii and GameCube.
In an interview with Virtual World News (www.virtualworldnews.com), James Gatto, from U.S. law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, pointed out that Texas may offer other advantages to Worlds.com.
``Being a foreign defendant in Texas is not a pleasant thing,'' he said.
``The juries are, many would say, biased towards American plaintiffs and have a propensity to offer high damages. Some defendants might view them as an unfriendly jury and it might make the defendant more likely to settle.''
NCsoft is one of the world's biggest online game companies by revenue, thanks to the success of titles such as ``Lineage'' and ``Guild Wars.''