"Devs should protect IP in the 3D race"

By Karl Barnfather

September 1st 2010 at 1:00PM

Patent attorney Karl Barnfather says studios should act fast in protecting IP

As the scramble to reinvigorate the games market gathers pace, inventors leading the development of 3D display and interface technology could be missing out when it comes to protecting their intellectual property and taking full commercial advantage.

And the problem appears to be cultural, more than anything else.

A seemingly unending stream of announcements by the leading console and games manufacturers about plans to extend their portfolios of 3D games in the near future underlines the importance the games industry is placing on marketing this increasingly popular consumer technology.

However, in the race to bring 3D functionality to market, strategic IP considerations are being overlooked. Whilst the number of patents being filed for 3D technology has been growing rapidly since the mid 90s, according to information available form the World Intellectual Property Orgnaisation (WIPO), most of these have been filed by TV manufacturers.

In this highly competitive, fast-moving industry, it is important that games and console manufacturers seek to protect their innovation in a way that also allows them to keep their options open.

For developers, going all out for a ‘proprietary standard’ may not be the best strategy, because a pursuit of exclusivity could leave the developer on the losing side of a technological head-to-head, similar to Blu-ray v HD DVD or VHS v Betamax.

In a marketplace where demand for content is in the driving seat, innovators would be wise to leave the way open to license their invention to content providers or potentially to block select competitors, depending on the preferred option at the time.

Whilst games manufacturers in Japan, such as Konami and Nintendo, are prolific patent filers and tend to take such matters very seriously, this has traditionally not been the case for their counterparts in Europe.

According to data available from the European patent office, Nintendo and Konami filed no fewer than 59 and 184 European patents respectively in the two years to the end of 2009, while many of the large UK games developers failed to file any patent applications over the same period.

Despite making a significant contribution to the development of 3D technology, the UK’s games industry is lagging behind some other industries in terms of the number of patents filed.

This is probably due to many factors. Being content-driven, the industry is highly creative and innovators and developers may be culturally less familiar with using patents to protect their work.

This and the fact that the technology is being developed simultaneously for many varied applications, means inventors in the games sector could miss out, or be beaten to the post by more dominant, IP-savvy companies in the TV and leisure entertainment sectors.

Conversely, by obtaining patent protection, games companies could potentially be in a position to licence their technology to players in these sectors.

3D developers in the games industry have much to gain by taking a more strategic approach to protect their innovation now.

The 3D bandwagon is growing and developers with a track record of innovation, who are monitoring technological progress closely, could use their IP to gain a significant commercial advantage in the future, particularly as the technology for games, TV and films begins to converge.