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.