May 31, 2003 at 3:20 am #28058
I’m a programmer who works with a community of individuals who make fan AGI/SCI games using all non-Sierra intellectual property *except* for the interpreters. The old AGI/SCI interpreters still work under most versions of Windows, and many excellent projects like Sarien and NAGI work on all versions of Windows as well as Linux/Unix (and I think BeOS, too, as well as Solaris, but not MacOS 8-9). While Sarien is a clean-room build and didn’t involve disassembling the original interpreter, it doesn’t work very well. NAGI, however, was created over the course of a year by the very talented Nick Sonneveld, and works perfectly… in fact, it actually makes AGI games look and sound better than they do with the original interpreter and provides support for 256-color palette swapping and mouse support (thanks to the very talented Brian Provinciano). Since he disassembled the original interpreter, does this violate copyright or patent rights? We’ve search the US Patent Office to see if Sierra registered a patent for the Adventure Game Interpreter and couldn’t find such a patent. We’ve consulted as many sources as possible to determine the legality of what we do. Of course, all of our games are distributed freely, but we’ve seen too many “abandon-ware” sites get shut down or vilified because they are essentially violating copyright. To the best of your knowledge, what was Sierra’s ownership or stance on ownership of AGI when you were still steering the helm?
Thank you for reading this very long post,
May 31, 2003 at 11:10 am #28059
(re: Legality of Fan AGI/SCI games)
Here’s my personal opinion, which may or may not reflect the opinion of Sierra. I have no idea what the current owners/managers there think.
Generally speaking, there are only three categories of protection for software: copyright, patent and trademark.
· Copyright – Copyright law has to do with copying – and, unless you do a byte-for-byte copy, it would be pretty tough for anyone to allege. I’m not a lawyer, but would be surprised if anyone could win a copyright case based on creating new code to perform the same function as existing code. Certainly, I would have considered this a case not worth pursuing in my day.
· Patent – Patent law has to do with protecting “inventions”. To obtain a patent, you apply to the patent office and describe what you believe your invention to be. The patent office reviews your application, and matches it against other patents on file – and, if they believe it is unique enough, they issue the patent. Sierra was early in the industry and did file several patents – not a large number but I remember 10-20 of them. Some had to do with SCI, and some were broad enough to have used in litigation against competitors. I believe all the patents having to do with SCI had one of the following names on them: Bob Heitman, Jeff Stephenson, Elon Gasper or myself. Sierra never filed a patent claim against anyone, although there were competitors I believed at the time we could have shutdown. Prosecuting a patent claim is time consuming, difficult and expensive. It also doesn’t make you very popular with your competitors, employees or customers. Had I been 100% certain we would win, I might have considered it – but, usually, there are many different ways to accomplish the same thing, and even with victory I probably wouldn’t have been able to pull a competitive product off the market – I just would have been able to force them to change one small implementation detail. Ultimately, I wanted to win through breaking new ground – not through trying to protect existing territory. Litigation made no sense to me, and we never sued anyone over a patent. My recollection of the patents of most interest to you are: we did file a patent on the simulated 3d we used, the method of using dithering to simulate colors and the methods we used for lip-syncing to audio.
· Trademark – Trademarks protect the name of things. I don’t know that we ever attempted to trademark either the name “SCI” or “AGI”
Both AGI and SCI are nothing more (or less) than programming languages. Prior to starting Sierra I had worked in compiler development, and liked the idea of creating my own language. Most of AGI was my “invention” and most of the “big picture” guidance for SCI came from Jeff Stephenson. In both cases, we borrowed heavily from other languages. AGI was a simple procedural language like C, Algol, PL/1, Fortran or Cobol. I borrowed liberally bits and parts from several languages. There really wasn’t a lot of originality in the code. Most of my effort revolved around implementation, not invention. The same is somewhat true for SCI, although there was much more pioneering with SCI. No major object-oriented programming language existed at the time. This was pre-C++ by many years. Literature existed and efforts were underway to develop object-oriented programming languages, but I don’t know of any other object-oriented language that was in wide commercial use at the time. I’m convinced that we were years ahead of the world in our use of objects, classes and methods. But, that said, we didn’t invent them – we just implemented them. If there was anything which qualified for patent protection about what we were doing, I don’t know what it would have been. The patents we filed have to do with code developed using SCI or AGI, but not with the language itself.
Once again, keep in mind that we are talking about events and code from over a quarter of a century ago. I have forgotten a great deal about those days, and am not a lawyer. These are issues that only someone with much greater legal knowledge than I should comment on.
June 3, 2003 at 6:15 am #28060
(re: Legality of Fan AGI/SCI games) Quote: “I’m a programmer who works with a community of individuals who make fan AGI/SCI games using all non-Sierra intellectual property *except* for the interpreters. The old AGI/SCI interpreters still work under most versions of Windows, and many excellent projects like Sarien and NAGI work on all versions of Windows as well as Linux/Unix (and I think BeOS, too, as well as Solaris, but not MacOS 8-9).”
Hey Andrew. Just wanted to add I’ve had got a Sarien not too long ago which ran SQ1 on my Macintosh with OS X.
June 3, 2003 at 7:16 pm #28061
(re: Legality of Fan AGI/SCI games) Both the American copyright and trademark offices can be searched online by anyone. I remember doing this some time ago to find all things Sierra-related. Some of the things that came up were really interesting. For instance, it is possible to estimate the release dates on very old games by looking at the dates in the databases, and trivia stuff such that Sierra doesn’t own the Space Quest trademark can be discovered. I don’t recall seeing anything AGI or SCI-related though, but I’m not sure. I haven’t searched for patents, and I don’t know if you can do that online. I don’t remember the links to the search pages either, but they should be easy to look up if anyone is interested…
June 4, 2003 at 11:13 am #28062
(re: Legality of Fan AGI/SCI games) Hehe, go here and type in “Williams; Kenneth A”. You will find patents like “Device for cleaning the human body”. Thanks Ken for keeping us clean 🙂
June 4, 2003 at 11:20 am #28063
(re: Legality of Fan AGI/SCI games) Cool!
I searched for “Williams, Kenneth A.” and “Sierra”
and found three patents under my name – that really are me.
There should also be one under WoldStream .. but, I haven’t checked it yet.
June 4, 2003 at 3:22 pm #28064
(re: Legality of Fan AGI/SCI games) Ok, I checked the links to the sites I mentioned.Search here for trademarks:
I just did a basic search for Sierra On-Line (as owner) and came up with 220 hits.
The copyright archives can be searched here:
A search for Sierra On-Line here got me 163 hits. Check out the details of the records for fun additional info.
BTW: Ken, when you registered a game copyright, would you do it before development started or just sometime before the game was publicly announced?
June 4, 2003 at 4:02 pm #28065
(re: Legality of Fan AGI/SCI games)
Very cool, seems like most registration dates are after the game has been released – I assume those are game release dates – are they correct?
June 4, 2003 at 8:59 pm #28066
(re: Legality of Fan AGI/SCI games) I didn’t know we registered game copyrights. Legal must have “just handled it” without my involvement.
September 16, 2003 at 5:25 pm #28067
(re: Legality of Fan AGI/SCI games) Wow, you’ve got some nasty patents there: a method for synchronizing mouth movements and sounds (though it seems that it technically could be applied to any animation) and one for pretty well a point and click movement interface. Who owns these patents currently, and is there any way they could be used against someone using methods comparable to those described in the patents?
In other words, is there any way someone who was making a game roughly equivalent to a Sierra adventure game could be using patented techniques?
January 27, 2004 at 2:01 pm #28068
(re: Legality of Fan AGI/SCI games)
Ken, how much did it cost to register a patent for a game? It seems like it would be expensive, hiring lawyers, paperwork…
January 27, 2004 at 3:16 pm #28069
(re: re: Legality of Fan AGI/SCI games) “…Ken, how much did it cost to register a patent for a game? It seems like it would be expensive, hiring lawyers, paperwork… “
There are a thousand answers to this question. Basically, a patent can cost hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars, or even tens of thousands of dollars. It’s entirely up to you.
The important issue is the quality of your patent when it is done. There are patents on file that were poorly researched, and wouldn’t stand up in court. There are patents that are so narrow that they are essentially worthless. A perfect patent would be one that will a) stand up in court, and b) is sufficiently broad as to provide you some real protection.
Generally, you get what you pay for with law firms. If you use a no-name lawfirm, you may get a patent for $500 – but, the odds are that you won’t have much of a patent. On the other hand, the odds are good that if you use a top silicon valley firm, and pay them $15,000 you will have a good solid patent when you finish — assuming you had something worth patenting in the first place.
I think we generally spent in the $10-30,000 range for our patents (in legal fees).
I never found that patents did much for us. Frequently I saw someone who would be stepping on one or more of our patents, but it costs money to pursue a patent claim against someone. There aren’t patent police out there who you can call to complain that someone is stepping on your patent.
Here’s what I mean…
Let’s say you patent something, and then see someone who is blatantly (in your opinion) stepping on your patent. Here’s what happens. You call your lawyer to complain. There went $500. Now your lawyer writes the alleged offender a letter asking them to cease their infringement. There goes another $500. Back will come a letter denying infringement. You guessed it – there goes another $500. Now, let’s say you decide to sue. Now we’re talking $200,000 or so. PLUS I’ve seen the following happen: the judge decides to pull the infringing product off the market, but only if you post a bond representing the value of the offending product – which can cost you millions.
The bottom line: patents are good, and it is definitely worth pursuing a patent when you create something original. That said, protecting your patent can be costly, and obtaining a good patent can be costly. It’s not all as simple as some people might have you believe.
PS I’m not a lawyer. Anything I say may or may not be accurate. If there are any intellectual property lawyers who read this – feel free to correct any errors.