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Did Carmack Really "Steal" ZeniMax's Tech for Oculus Rift?

The Wall Street Journal reports that ZeniMax Media, the parent company of Bethesda and id Software, is undergoing a legal battle with Oculus VR over the technology behind the Rift VR headset. The dispute goes back to early 2012 when John Carmack was still a programmer at id Software, and Palmer Luckey was working with a research group at the University of Southern California.

According to the report, Carmack demonstrated a modified headset at ZeniMax Media's booth during E3 2012. This device was essentially a pair of ski goggles with electronics held together by tape. At the time, Carmack said that he created software to make the device a working prototype. This demo took place around the same time Palmer Luckey founded Oculus VR.

ZeniMax now claims that this device was the template for Oculus VR's Rift headset.

Unnamed sources told The Wall Street Journal that ZeniMax began seeking compensation for the intellectual property in August 2012. For six months, the two companies negotiated, and ended when Oculus VR offered ZeniMax a small equity stake in the VR headset company. No deal was reached, the sources said.

Carmack joined Oculus VR in August 2013 while still working for ZeniMax Media, and eventually stepped down from his programming seat at id Software in November 2013 to work at Oculus VR full time.

During February 2014, Carmack was asked by ZeniMax Media to disclose all virtual reality inventions he developed while still employed at id Software. The paper didn't say what became of that request, but instead pointed out that Facebook announced a bid to purchase Oculus VR for $2 billion USD on March 25.

Over the span of several weeks, ZeniMax lawyers recently sent two letters to Oculus VR and Facebook, saying that Carmack "improperly took ZeniMax's intellectual property with him to Oculus VR. That technology helped push Rift from "a garage-based pipe dream into a working reality."

"It's unfortunate, but when there's this type of transaction, people come out of the woodwork with ridiculous and absurd claims. We intend to vigorously defend Oculus and its investors to the fullest extent," an Oculus VR spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal.

We reached out to ZeniMax Media for a comment, and this is what the company provided:

"ZeniMax confirms it recently sent formal notice of its legal rights to Oculus concerning its ownership of key technology used by Oculus to develop and market the Oculus Rift. ZeniMax's technology may not be licensed, transferred or sold without ZeniMax Media's approval. ZeniMax's intellectual property rights arise by reason of extensive VR research and development works done over a number of years by John Carmack while a ZeniMax employee, and others. ZeniMax provided necessary VR technology and other valuable assistance to Palmer Luckey and other Oculus employees in 2012 and 2013 to make the Oculus Rift a viable VR product, superior to other VR market offerings.

"The proprietary technology and know-how Mr. Carmack developed when he was a ZeniMax employee, and used by Oculus, are owned by ZeniMax. Well before the Facebook transaction was announced, Mr. Luckey acknowledged in writing ZeniMax's legal ownership of this intellectual property. It was further agreed that Mr. Luckey would not disclose this technology to third persons without approval. Oculus has used and exploited ZeniMax's technology and intellectual property without authorization, compensation or credit to ZeniMax. ZeniMax and Oculus previously attempted to reach an agreement whereby ZeniMax would be compensated for its intellectual property through equity ownership in Oculus but were unable to reach a satisfactory resolution. ZeniMax believes it is necessary to address these matters now and will take the necessary action to protect its interests."

  • Ninjawithagun
    Yes, it is absolutely possible that John Carmack is guilty of industrial espionage. In other words, yes he most likely stole proprietary (and patented) technologies from ZeniMax and integrated them into the Oculus VR development effort. The only problem is actually proving that Carmack actually did it. Most likely, Facebook will negotiate with ZeniMax "out of court" for a unspecified financial settlement.
    Reply
  • badirontree
    ZeniMax Does not have a single patent with Carmack .. only code :P
    Reply
  • unksol
    And they own the code he wrote for them. duh
    Reply
  • burkhartmj
    13215616 said:
    And they own the code he wrote for them. duh

    The problem I'm seeing is that neither side is being very clear about whether he wrote it FOR them, or independently WHILE he was employed there, but not for them. If he wrote software commissioned by ZeniMax and done using their resources , then it's their's and Oculus needs to license the tech. if he pulled a Wozniak and stayed after hours to work on his own projects by himself, then it's not so cut and dry. And of course if he did it at home but happened to be employed by ZeniMax then they have absolutely no claim to it.
    Reply
  • Bloob
    The proprietary technology and know-how Mr. Carmack developed when he was a ZeniMax employee, and used by Oculus, are owned by ZeniMax

    His know-how is owned by ZeniMax... ? Just no.
    Reply
  • trkorecky
    13215616 said:
    And they own the code he wrote for them. duh

    The problem I'm seeing is that neither side is being very clear about whether he wrote it FOR them, or independently WHILE he was employed there, but not for them. If he wrote software commissioned by ZeniMax and done using their resources , then it's their's and Oculus needs to license the tech. if he pulled a Wozniak and stayed after hours to work on his own projects by himself, then it's not so cut and dry. And of course if he did it at home but happened to be employed by ZeniMax then they have absolutely no claim to it.

    Unfortunately almost all game studios require employees to sign an inventions clause, giving the studio ownership of everything the employee makes, whether at work on company hard/software or on the employee's own time, with their own software licenses, on their own devices. If he developed this software while he was employed at ZeniMax, and had previously signed an invention clause or similar, then ZeniMax *absolutely* owns everything he did while there and thus Oculus will be required to pay up.
    Reply
  • basketcase87
    I didn't know Oculus was a boring, bug-ridden MMO based on a bestselling single player franchise...
    Reply
  • Chris Droste
    this article sounds really sketchy. it sounds like that Carmack being Carmack, was interested in VR while ZeniMax was not, but had developmental ties TO VR thanks to Carmack(most likely working on his own) that was subsequently SHARED to Oculus, which Palmer Luckey totally acknowledges. Carmack is smart enough to not just take his "ZeniMax" code and just use the same thing at Oculus. I think this is more about Carmack, dissatisfied with ZeniMax's dis-interest in backing VR development going to Oculus and moving forward with the ideas he had on the table. now that there's a HUGE amount of money backing Oculus, ZeniMax suddenly becomes interested and wants their piece of the pie. I mean, the negotiations prior to the acquisition sounded like "we don't want to invest in you or commit resources to our relationship other than what you already got, but we want money all the same" and since Oculus had not really taken off yet they said "umm, what money? you want to come over here and pick the lint out of our pockets go for it, but if you want money you need something more than a sneeze of alpha code to make that happen"
    Reply
  • zakaron
    Mr. Carmack is a smart developer; I'm sure he knows exactly where that line is of what code/tech he cannot use at Oculus. In fact, his statement "Oculus uses zero lines of code that I wrote while under contract to Zenimax" tells me that he probably came up with other methods to achieve a similar effect to what he may have worked on previously. Lawyers are not programmers, so I doubt they understand the code behind the product. Just because a Honda Civic and a Nissan GTR have the same amount of tires and a steering wheel, does not make them the same.
    Reply
  • Zhyr
    It's also doubtful he would have signed a clause like that because of who he is.
    Reply