Talk about VR Wars! Oculus VR — the company Facebook is buying for $2 billion — has formally responded to claims that some of the technology in its Oculus Rift headset belongs to ZeniMax Media. Oculus says it is “disappointed but not surprised” by ZeniMax’s actions and vows to prove that all of “[ZeniMax’s] claims are false”.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that ZeniMax, the owner of game studios such as id Software and Bethesda Game Studios, sent letters to Oculus and Facebook, alleging ownership of some of the key technology in the Oculus Rift headset.
At the center of the dispute is Oculus’s CTO, John Carmack. Before joining the Oculus team in August 2012, Carmack worked for ZeniMax in his role at id Software. ZeniMax alleges that much of the intellectual property behind the Oculus Rift is a product of VR research done by Carmack while he was employee at id Software.
ZeniMax says it “believes it is necessary to address these matters now” (presumably via compensation) and has vowed to protect its interests.
Re/code published what appears to be a non-disclosure agreement between representatives of id and Oculus VR, which appear to govern the partnership on the two companies work on VR and to cover ZeniMax’s rights to work done by Carmack at id.
Carmack responded on Twitter, declaring:
No work I have ever done has been patented. Zenimax owns the code that I wrote, but they don’t own VR.— John Carmack (@ID_AA_Carmack) May 1, 2014
It is worth noting that one of the reasons Carmack says he left id Software (a company he co-founded) was because ZeniMax was uninterested in letting him port games such as Doom 4 and Wolfenstein: The New Order on the Oculus Rift.
Talking to USA Today in February, Carmack said:
“When it became clear that I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to do any work on VR while at id software, I decided to not renew my contract.”
On Monday, Oculus released a more formal statement responding to ZeniMax’s claims.
Here it is in full:
We are disappointed but not surprised by ZeniMax’s actions and we will prove that all of its claims are false. In the meantime, we would like to clarify a few key points:
- There is not a line of ZeniMax code or any of its technology in any Oculus products.
- John Carmack did not take any intellectual property from ZeniMax.
- ZeniMax has misstated the purposes and language of the ZeniMax non-disclosure agreement that Palmer Luckey signed.
- A key reason that John permanently left ZeniMax in August of 2013 was that ZeniMax prevented John from working on VR, and stopped investing in VR games across the company.
- ZeniMax canceled VR support for Doom 3 BFG when Oculus refused ZeniMax’s demands for a non-dilutable equity stake in Oculus.
- ZeniMax did not pursue claims against Oculus for IP or technology, ZeniMax has never contributed any IP or technology to Oculus, and only after the Facebook deal was announced has ZeniMax now made these claims through its lawyers.
- Despite the fact that the full source code for the Oculus SDK is available online (developer.oculusvr.com), ZeniMax has never identified any ‘stolen’ code or technology.
Employment contracts matter
At a macro-level, the ZeniMax/Oculus dispute appears to be a fairly standard work product dispute. In an employment contract, “work product” refers to anything created by an employee that becomes property of an employer under certain conditions.
Some contracts stipulate that only work done on company equipment or during certain hours as work product. Other contracts are more broad and can include anything created by an employee.
It appears that Oculus’s argument is that the only work product that ZeniMax owns in relation to Carmcack’s VR work would be lines of code (and presumably, patents filed while employed by ZeniMax). ZeniMax appears to be arguing that work product extends to research and non-code work done by Carmack in the area of VR.
Ultimately, the lawyers will fight this one out.
BONUS: This Oculus Rift Game Will Scare the Crap Out Of You