[Op-Ed] ‘Minecraft’ Under Assault By (Patent) Trolls

Say you’re a Luxembourg, Germany-based company just sitting on a patent for a “system and method for preventing unauthorized access to electronic data.” While that’s not too specific, and while you haven’t actually built anything with said nebulous technology, that’s not going to stop you from lobbing lawsuits at the likes of EA, Square Enix, and Microsoft last week. Oh, and Mojang’s Minecraft, which was released on Android devices recently.

That’s the story of Uniloc, who is hitting up the above companies for patent infringement damages.

Read on about how a company that has produced nothing concrete in its entire existence is attempting to sue its way to big dollars.

First off, I invite you to check out the Uniloc site and poke around for a few minutes. Go on, I’ll be right here. Notice something? Uniloc, the parent company of Blue Cava is all about R&D and coming up with (in their words) “big ideas that are technology driven.”

Now, ignoring the fact that this isn’t so much a mission statement for a real company but an aspiration that provides less detail than a business card slogan, it also speaks to the real aim of the firm: creating vague patents for very generalized technology and then crying foul when a company sets out to actually, you know, come up with the actual code and infrastructure to make said technology.

Before I get more ranty, let me stop and say that while I find Uniloc’s practices odious, I also disagree with Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson, who believes that software patents are anathema to creativity: “Software patents are plain evil. Innovation within software is basically free, and it’s growing incredibly rapid. Patents only slow it down.”

While software patents like Uniloc’s provide cover for obvious patent trolls, they also secure the rights for developers who meticulously develop software with targeted functionality that they might wish to license to other companies.

Now here’s what Uniloc is suing over (if I’m reading the terms of the suit correctly): a generalized method to verify that a mobile device is valid before allowing software can be authorized for use on said device. That’s… a really great idea. It’s also the way the bulk of DRM-protected media functions. We can argue the virtue (or drawbacks) of DRM, but that’s another argument.

Uniloc exists solely for the defense of scurrilous lawsuits against companies (their Q&A page even explains that they’ve received an influx of capital to support their litigation efforts).

In this case, they’re targeting not only big fish firms like EA and Square Enix (who might just be willing to swat this kind of suit with a settlement, or take their chances in court as Microsoft did between 2003 and 2009). Then there’s Mojang and founder Persson, who says that he’s willing to throw money at the problem until Uniloc goes away.

Good for him.

Uniloc, who names the Mojang game “Mindcraft” in their suit, maintains that they will continue to pursue litigation because it’s the right thing to do. The right thing to do (for the rest of us) would be to contact our lawmakers and argue for a more detailed set of patent laws that are based in the modern realities of software creation and distribution. I’m no legal scholar, so I’m simply approaching this from the perspective of someone who consumes software and doesn’t want to see companies that do the hard work of actually making things get penalized by parasitic entities like Uniloc. They’re no better than Edge Games, who sat on the name “Edge” as it relates to game titles (you may recall, they sued any and every game release with the word “Edge” in their names… and lost).

The alternative: as patent law becomes more hostile to companies like Mojang, they might decide they don’t want to bring their software to our shores any longer.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MTV Multiplayer or Viacom.

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