July 15, 2024

Can Ownership Be Owned?

Julian Dibbell, at TerraNova, points out an issued U.S. Patent that seems to cover digital property systems of the type used by many multiplayer online games:

How naive must one be, in this day and age, to spend months debating the question of virtual property without once wondering whether the question itself (or at any rate the phenomenon underlying it) wasn’t already somebody’s intellectual property?

Speaking only for myself, I confess the thought never crossed my mind. Not until last week, that is, when I received a friendly email from veteran game designer Ron Martinez, who alerted me to U.S. patent 6,119,229, “Virtual Property System,” filed April 1997, granted September 2000, and jointly held by Martinez, Greg Guerin, and the famous cryptographer Bruce Schneier.

As if it weren’t freaky enough that someone could own the concept of digital property, check this out: the patent arguably covers the U.S. Patent system itself, as administered by the PTO, at least with respect to patents on network technology.

Don’t believe me? Let’s read the text of Claim 1 of the patent against the U.S. Patent system. I’ll intersperse the language of the claim (in ordinary typeface) with explanations of where each element can be found in the patent system (in italics). Ready? Here goes.

What is claimed is:

1. A digital object ownership system [the U.S. patent system], comprising:

a plurality of user terminals, each of said user terminals being accessible by at least one individual user [PCs on the Internet];

at least one central computer system, said central computer system being capable of communicating with each of said user terminals [the Patent Office’s servers];

a plurality of digital objects [U.S. patents], each of said digital objects having a unique object identification code [the patent number], each of said digital objects being assigned to an owner [patents have owners], said digital objects being persistent such that each of said digital objects is accessible by a particular user both when said user’s terminal is in communications with said central computer system and also when said terminal is not in communication with said central computer system [patents still exist even when users aren’t reading them on the Net], said object having utility [the ability to bring an infringement suit] in connection with communication over a network [assuming the patent covers subject matter connected to communication over a network], said utility requiring the presence of the object identification code and proof of ownership [infringement suit requires the use of the patent number and a proof of ownership of the patent];

wherein said objects are transferable among users [patent ownership can be transferred]; and

wherein an object that is transferred is assigned to the new owner [when transferred, patent belongs to the new owner].

Yikes! Perhaps the patent system itself is prior art that would invalidate this claim, or at least narrow its scope. This is too much to contemplate on a Friday afternoon.


  1. Very funny and convincing. I like the way you think, I guess you can prove that 2+2 is 5, if you try :)) But we all can see that the patent systems leave us a lot of space for interpretations, so they definitely need to be reformed.

  2. Linkages

    Can Ownership Be Owned? at Freedom To Tinker. He examines a patent which seems to cover digital property – the sort of "stuff" you "own" in a game-world. He says that the US Patent Office itself may constitute invalidating prior art…

  3. Patents patented

    Patents patented: Lots of websites have been concerned about how patent rulings would be made and interpreted. Here, Edward Felten makes the case that the US Patent Office has apparently granted some a patent which invalidates the USPO’s own techniques…

  4. Chris Tunnell says

    CrazyCat: I think the biggest problem is the American view on voting. Americans do not seem to understand how valueable their votes are, and if you don’t believe me, then look at the percentage of people who vote. If people cherished their vote more, and were worried about it not being counted, then more attention would be put on the security of electronic voting. All we can do is try to go through the slow (governmental) process of changing, or we could wait until this becomes a problem large enough for CNN.

    To comment on the article, the patent and copyright systems are a mess and have as many interpretations as the bible. The problems get cleared up in court though. Patents have just turned into a way of corporations protecting themselves from other corporations with patents it seems.

  5. You know, patent office reform should probably be up at the top of our agenda, just after getting some security and accountability into the voting machine fiasco.

  6. On a similar note, IBM was recently awarded a patent on a method of paying programmers to work on open source software.

    I recently wrote about a fool-proof (but, alack not attorney-proof) way of protecting yourself from such patents here.

  7. Cypherpunk says

    That’s pretty funny. I’m sure you could do that trick to a lot of patents.

    I remember when Bruce was first working on this back in 1995. As I understood it, the Transactor system was designed to cover things like digital trading cards, so you could have online versions of Magic The Gathering, Pokemon, Lord of the Rings and so on. The wording of the patent makes more sense in that context.