British Telecommunication plc (BT) has sued Valve Corp. in the State of Delaware alleging infringement of four technology patents in the operation of the Steam digital distribution service. The British firm claimed that it attempted to communicate on three separate occasions with Valve legal counsel between October of last year and April 2016, and since they received no response, were compelled to file the lawsuit.
First, BT alleges that Valve is infringing upon the Gittins patent from June of 2003, which describes “providing users with content that originates from multiple subscription services and delivering it through a single portal where a customer may access content for which it has access rights.” The Newton patent dating to December 2001 describes a “method for delivering structured messages comprised of information and data parts to an intended audience in a reliable and predictable manner.” Outlining a “communications system in which a user is provided with different communication mechanisms and each mechanism is associated with a call control protocol” is the Beddus patent awarded in February 2004. Last is the Buckley patent from January 2007 that describes a “multi-user display system and method for controlling a communal display that includes at least two independent workstations and an interface server for connection to a data network.” BT chose Delaware because Valve has business in the state, and BT already has brought a patent claim in the district against Google in 2011 for alleged infringement by the Android operating system. Valve has not commented on the litigation.
Impact: One affirmation that companies have become wildly successful is that there are other companies who will take the opportunity to find some justification to file a lawsuit against them. By all accounts, both as a game developer and digital distribution market leader, Valve has been very successful. After reviewing BT’s complaint, we are a bit puzzled. The telecom describes its patents as processes and then matches those processes to how Steam operates. Fair enough, but those descriptions are very broad. As BT has a history of creating services and products from its own research, we would like to think there is something more concrete and unique about how those descriptions are applied practically.
What has us puzzled is that the Gettins, Newton and Beddus patents all date after very similar applications were already in use by Vivendi Universal Games’ World Opponent Network (WON) that Valve acquired in 2001, and whose framework was reworked into the Steam project. WON was primarily a matchmaking service for Sierra On-Line games, including Valve’s own Half-Life FPS. The network also hosted tournaments, and provided a selection of Shockwave games from independent developers for browser play. These are the very same kinds of functions that the Gittins patent seems to claim for itself, but the patent came later. Similarly, the Newton patent describes the same process as every connection made to an email server worldwide for decades. The Beddus patent likewise seems to claim ownership of instant messaging chat functions. But in 2000, Flipside.com – which came about from the merger of WON with Prize Central – cemented a deal with AOL to provide downloadable games to the ICQ messaging app. Once again, years before BT’s patent was awarded. As for the Buckley patent concerning distribution of “communal displays,” BT targets Steam Broadcasting of live gameplay. However, the argument can be made that the patent description can just as easily be compared to the linking of a multiplayer game server in a consumer home through a network like WON through which other consumer game systems connect and interact with. The display in this case is a game level controlled by the game server not streaming video, yet the functions are similar.
BT takes great umbrage at Valve ignoring its infringement notices. But to be fair, the reaction to those notices may well have been incredulity.