Entrepreneurs vs. Patent Trolls

As one of five partners in a very small  virtual world software startup, I went in search of patents that may concern my company’s next software product.

I had no idea that I would be mired in a sea of legalese.

Much of our company’s work involves the OpenSim platform.

While we have no desire to patent OpenSim or any part of OpenSim, I found patents that seem to do just that. I have, over a number of years, been exposed to a lot of “contract speak”. However, I was nowhere near ready for the twists and turns that I found while checking to be sure our company wasn’t stepping on anyone’s toes.

Still from the trailer for 1990's Troll 2.
Still from the trailer for 1990’s Troll 2.

The median income for a software developer in the U.S. is $90,000 a year. A large investment for any company. Our company has five partners and a few contract workers.

To develop new software and our own custom content is expensive. Tools like patents and copyright registration are incredibly important to the longevity of the incomes for all the people that have gone outside the mainstream to innovate.

As has happened throughout history, many tools have also been used as weapons. It seems that is the case with much of the virtual world technology.

It was so confusing to wade through these granted patents as well as patents that have been applied for but, not yet granted. We sought the help of a patent attorney. As we quickly found out, obtaining an attorney is really expensive. Costs can run from $3,500 to $10,000 for the research, advice and filing of the proper paperwork.

I don’t begrudge the lawyers for what they charge. Just reading through the few patent applications I fought to translate to plain English was daunting. As I too wanted to protect the work that our company had done, it is difficult to fault others that want to protect their work.

Many of the patents seem to cover OpenSim even in its base components. Delivery of content to an avatar, interoperability between virtual worlds. Here’s one example: Systems and methods of virtual world interaction, applied for in 2012 by Utherverse CEO Brian Shuster. Utherverse is a commercial virtual world platform known mostly for its adult content. However, the company has announced plans to expand beyond this core audience and become the default server platform for the hyperconnected virtual worlds of the future.

I could not believe that all of our efforts could be dashed because there were patents for the software that our programs had been written to work with and enhance. With a number of years under my belt working in grids such as SecondLife, Virtual Highway, Island Oasis, Avination, SpotON3D, 3rd Rock and Inworldz, I had certainly heard of companies — mostly law offices, a.k.a. Trolls — that had a reputation for filing patents that were both unfounded, and far reaching into the work of others.

But I was not at all prepared for what I found.

Dozens of patent applications, some granted, and owned by one group or another.

To make matters worse, in only an hour or so I found dozens of these groups in only the virtual world arena. You don’t need a doctorate to figure out that these are groups of attorneys that created a generic form to apply for patents in the technology of immersive environments.

Somewhere in all that legalese is the heart of what they are attempting to protect but, Joe Average has no idea if he is infringing on an innovative and honest idea. There are lawyers that are out there helping to protect original ideas and technologies. Although these “patent mills” are so pervasive as to blanket the landscape.

Initially, all of the partners in our company were discouraged to say the least. We needed a meeting right away. Two of our partners live in Holland and France. One in Ohio and two on the west coast. It makes for some time constraints but we were able to meet right away. In short the decision was made to continue with our efforts.

We will file to protect the work we are so invested in. The current patent and copyright systems are surely broken. But, rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, our company has opted to work with the system such as it is, and hope for the best.

We have filed our company as an LLC and will file our patent application, on a specific piece of software we have written ourselves.

We don’t want to even have the appearance of trying to patent any part of OpenSim or lock out other innovators. We only want to protect what we are doing.

At worst, in the short term, we are denied issuance of our patent. We will still offer our software up for use and hope that others find it as useful as we do.

But I understand if some folks look into applying for a patent only to be face to face with patent Trolls and then back away slowly.

My friends and I are optimists. We see ourselves as the cowboys of virtual world support software. We each hope that there are more of us Cowboys and Cowgirls out there. To us, it is better to try to do it right and fail, than to simply fail.

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