Zenimax Accuses Carmack of Stealing Tech For Oculus VR

Bethesda and id Software parent company Zenimax Media is accusing id co-founder John Carmack of taking technology that belonged to Zenimax when he left the company to become chief technology officer at Oculus VR.

According to a report from The Wall Street Journal, Zenimax lawyers have sent two letters to Oculus stating that Carmack “improperly” took intellectual property with him when he left the company. The gist of it is this: Carmack worked at id when he was developing VR tech for Oculus, and since he was an employee, Zenimax is laying claim to the work he did there.

Zenimax says it was Carmack’s tech, developed while he was a Zenimax employee, that was the turning point for Oculus, taking it from a garage tech startup to a company that would attract the attention of social networking titan Facebook. In March, Mark Zuckerberg’s company inked a deal to acquire Oculus to the tune of $2 billion in cash and stock, but that deal hasn’t been closed yet.

In a statement sent to GameFront and Engadget, Zenimax lawyers said the letters were meant to inform Oculus of the former’s “legal rights:”

“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.”

Meanwhile, Oculus released its own statement to WSJ, claiming it plans to defend itself, presumably in court.

“It’s unfortunate, but when there’s this type of transaction, people come out of the woodwork with ridiculous and absurd claims,” the statement said. “We intend to vigorously defend Oculus and its investors to the fullest extent.”

What’s not clear is whether Facebook was aware of Zenimax’s claims on any Oculus tech before it made its deal with Oculus, or how this development might affect that transaction. If Zenimax’s claims on Oculus tech bear out, it’ll likely mean Facebook and Oculus will owe licensing fees to Zenimax on each Oculus headset the companies sell. Right now, that’s a pretty low number, since Oculus still hasn’t even created a retail model yet.

GameFront has reached out to Oculus and Zenimax for further comment, and we’ll update this story as more information comes in.


Phil Hornshaw is senior editor at GameFront. Read more of his work here, and follow him and GameFront on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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7 Comments on Zenimax Accuses Carmack of Stealing Tech For Oculus VR

Mr Flibble

On May 1, 2014 at 10:41 am

There’s pretty much no way there won’t be fan backlash from this. Will Zenimax become the new Disney, claiming that anything their former employees do after leaving the company was thought up while under their employ, and then sue for the rights to it?

Phil Hornshaw

On May 1, 2014 at 10:53 am

@Mr Flibble

Not a bad point, but it’s worth noting that Carmack and Oculus (and it seems, Zenimax and Oculus, or at least id and Oculus) were TIGHT before Carmack left id. He was CTO for Oculus AND employed at id at the same time. He talked up the Oculus at QuakeCon in (I think) 2012. There’s definitive overlap there, which muddies the waters.

rickshaw

On May 1, 2014 at 4:50 pm

… lolz,, you got to wait…. then pounce… nice to see :)

eezstreet

On May 2, 2014 at 12:36 pm

This is pretty standard fare in the game industry. Usually if you work under a publisher, they give you a contract, this contract stating that if you are to work on something else while working under the publisher (such as for instance, another game or Oculus tech). Regardless of Carmack’s position at Zenimax and Oculus, his work would still belong to Zenimax. I’m sorry to say that I think Oculus is pretty much screwed here.

This isn’t something that just Zenimax does btw, it’s also employed by Activision, EA, …

Phil Hornshaw

On May 2, 2014 at 12:40 pm

@eezstreet

Right. And it’s not uncommon outside of gaming as well. Lots of industries have similar elements in their contracts.

quicktooth

On May 3, 2014 at 2:51 am

So we have a complete complement of things a company can go through after having great success… happen to a company with no product at market whatsoever. Is this like currency no longer being backed by things of actual value (like gold)? A company can have value and success with no actual sales of a finished product at all? This is like some science fiction story, except it’s real. More and more things (like our whole concept of economics! Just look at what people did AFTER the global financial crisis!) are getting more and more removed from reality. And it always comes back to bite us. Is this a consequence of worshipping actors and actresses, indeed artists in general? Is that just a phase? The weather is breaking down, people can make money and be successful sellers of a product they never sold (as it isn’t finished yet), what’s next? I can only stare in a dreamlike state at role playing games and wonder if their idea of reality itself starting to break down could happen too. Hmm.
Our leaders and spies can do as they feel like with no consequences at all (mostly), even though they’re accountable to their people; we’re saving so much “labour” with our devices that we’re engineering our whole species out of the job; hell, we even have cybernetics and invisibility cloaks (albiet simple ones). Not to mention corporate controlled feelings and values (just look at cosmetics). It’s not so far fetched. It really worries me when the choice is between reality itself breaking down and turning into a cyberpunk dystopia. Like I said, dream like state and role playing games. I guess we always wanted our dreams to become reality…

queenulhu

On May 23, 2014 at 9:57 am

@quicktooth as predicted by the prophet, william gibson…..