« Syndicate Sponsorship | Main | Virtual Worlds Research Widens Academic Impact »

Jan 30, 2004



Sounds like the 'unique object identification code' is the key, and the reason it doesn't apply to most MMOGs. As long as designers treat objects like cash (which technically does have a unique serial #, but isn't tracked by central treasury computers) rather than, say, real esate (which is unique and effectively tracked in a different way), then there's no infringement. Tracking every object's every move would be a needless burden on game developers right now, but it might be more useful in the future. In that case, Martinez was rather prescient and leapfrogged the obvious (and current) middle ground.

But I can already see at least one way to leapfrog even that idea: rather than use a central inventorying system, have the central computer issue every item a unique encrypted key, possibly based on a hash of itself. This way, the central system can only authenticate, and true control of the item is left with the owner, and we come full circle back to something like cash. The digital object is then portable inside or outside the system, unalterable (to prevent cheating), exchangable, etc.

And if there's any royalties to be made off that idea, I call copyright :)


With patents, the devil is in the details (claims). One or two of the claims may be a little weak, with some of my own published work as prior art. But current generation MMORGs/Virtual worlds have little to fear from claims like #5:

The digital object ownership system ..., wherein the ownership certificate comprises a cryptographically signed data structure, said data structure comprising an object identification code, a user code associated with the owner of the object, a key associated with the central computer system, an ownership certificate issuance date, and an object expiration date.

This is secure, scarce, distributed digital objects stuff. Current implementations don't use anything like this, as the overhead (and shared information) problems with implementing it are non-trivial and heavy weight.

If someone out there has been advised by a patent attorney that they are violating this patent and need some help identifying any prior art, feel free to contact me. I seem to spend about a day a month helping to shoot holes in distributed object/avatar/ecommerce patents.



Julian Dibbell>It's hard for this layperson to see how the patent doesn't cover every MMORPG with an economy

It's hard for THIS layperson to see how the patent was ever awarded in the first place.

As always with patents, the vague language means you have to attack every assertion at least twice: once in case it means what it seems to mean, and once in case it means the opposite. This is especially the cae when the patent doesn't even parse as proper English, as in "Each of the digital objects are assigned to an owner" - that "are" should be "is".

Take the phrase "The digital objects are persistent, such that each of the digital objects is accessible by a particular user both when the user's terminal is in communication with the central computer system and also when the user's terminal is not in communication with the central computer system". This looks like it means the user can access the digital object when their terminal is connected to the server AND when it isn't. Since for most virtual worlds the only way to access an object is through the terminal, this would seem to rule them out.

That isn't what the claim necessarily means, though. A patent lawyer might argue that this is merely ONE embodiment of the central idea, for use by people who want to sell digital ownership certificates to one anothe rwithout having to go through the server that defines the meaning of the virtual objects to which the certificates pertain.

If these particular patent holders decide to restrict their patents to this secure digital object domain, virtual world developers have little to fear. If, however, the patent holders get greedy and try to claim their patent applies to virtual worlds, they'll then have to explain why it applies only to those virtual worlds that were around after the patent application was made and not those that were around before. That should be interesting.

I had my first conversation about currency in virtual worlds circa 1982 (with a refugee from behind the Iron Curtain who was very pro-capitalism). That conversation included musings about how virtual currency could be made "real" by using what we'd now call digital certificates. Although this doesn't qualify as prior art, it does suggest that the idea was "obvious" to anyone working in the field.

Software patents - I hate 'em!



Do I understand correctly that, if the virtual items were not serialized with unique ID numbers, it would effectively skirt the patent?

Seems like you could assign virtual property new ID's at creation time, or even at manipulation time. When a player logs into the game, no doubt his avatar and inventory are pulled out of a database and the appropriate server-side create item functionality is called that brings the item to 'life' perse by creating an object in server memory by which users of the VW can view and manipulate. UO has unique ID's for every object, and SWG even shows you theirs, and these serial numbers are persistent from day to day.

To my mind, it seems like you could skirt the patent by employing a different storage strategy. When its time to backup the player or game-state, the server could dump everything to disk but discards the unique ID's. When the player logs back in and these things are loaded back into memory, they can be assigned random new ID's. The only challenge here is that the ID's could not be used to determine container parentage, but unless your items are whack, ideally all items in a container should be with and save with the same character who carries the container.

Anyway, there my 2 cents. No doubt unique instance ID's have some utility and may make server coding more straightforward, allow tracking and control duping, but you may be able to work around the patent with a carefully planned alternative.


I remember reading this patent when it became public and coming to the conclusions that Randy and Richard have already covered. For the curious, this patent is the basis for a product from Ron Martinez's current company, PSC Products.

From their web site:

"Digital Property

PSC will be releasing a digital object brokering product based on our groundbreaking patent, Virtual Property System, U.S. Patent No. 6119229. This patent describes fundamental methods of implementing the ownership, sale, and re-sale of a broad range of digital objects, from online gamepieces to other forms of media and network-delivered rights and privileges. Systems based upon this work will support one of the fastest growing forms of commerce: the electronic delivery of digital goods and services."


I'm not a patent lawyer but I do have a patent application in and in the process of writing it I learned a bit about the system.

The first thing to understand is that patents have a language all thier own that looks like english but is not.

I have often seen people without knowledge of patent law read patents and jump to erronius conclusions. In fact the link up above does exactley that when the author says "this could apply to the contents of the US patent office." Guess what? it can't.

This patent is much to narrow to cover the contents of the patent office and in fact its very specific and describes only certain types of digital property and only certain ways of keeping track that property.

Euphrosyne has already postulated a work around and F Randall Farmer has shown how the patent does not apply to current VWs.

I think this patent would be of interest if the invetor could show a way to gain economic advantage for your game by using the patent.


カジノ>What a great website I have ever seen. Thanks for all the hard work.

Call me suspicious, but are you a bot advertising (in this case) a casino by posting generic messages to message boards, blogs and guestbooks?



"Call me suspicious, but are you a bot advertising"

Richard - stop talking to the Bot you'll only encourage it [g].

Could somone who has a moment delete the "カジノ" messages? They are just annoying.


The comments to this entry are closed.