Apparently, in 2010, Sony decided to apply for a patent for:
Coordinating real-world gatherings to promote an online community, the method including: encouraging participants of the online community to participate in a real-world gathering by providing incentives for the participants; promoting familiarity among the participants by providing and introducing online community titles of the participants at the real-world gathering; and providing online benefits or rewards to the participants for participating in the real-world gathering. Keywords include socializing in the real world, community building and bridging the gap between the game world and the real world.
You can find the full text of the patent application here. Or look for patent application #20120094763 at The US Patent and Trade Office.
(Make sure you look at patent applications and not granted patents…)
In a sane world, this application gets laughed out of the room. There are decades of “prior art” for starters. In addition, patents exist to protect inventions or business processes, neither of which include the concept of a “fan gathering”. Of course, in the real world, which is anything but sane, the USPTO has a tendency to grant patents and wait for them to be challenged in court. That means that there is a chance, unless someone raises a ruckus, that this patent could actually be granted. That would, essentially, place conventions like Dragon*Con (and PAX, and Gen Con, and Blizzcon, and CCP’s fan fest, and…) in the unenviable position of having to “lawyer up” in order to keep the legal jackals at Sony at bay.
It should be noted that our friends at Sony Online Entertainment are NOT the folks who filed this patent. Sony Computer Entertainment and Sony Online Entertainment are two separate beasts. (If you’re curious, SCE is the “Mother Ship” to SOE. SCE also develops console games and other titles that are not MMOs) Perhaps if the folks in charge over at SCE had bothered to consult with the folks at Sony Online, they might have realized what a bad move this could be for them.
Bad move? Here is how I see it. Yes, Sony has a ton of money and can throw lawyers at just about anyone. Unfortunately, they have not been the “big fish” in online gaming in many years. Even if the stars and planets align just-so, and their patent is granted AND it stands up in court… What do they win? They will alienate every fan who attends Blizzcon, every fan who comes to conventions like Gen Con and Dragon*Con, and every fan to does not already exclusively play Sony titles. What is more likely? They’ll sue a “gathering of online gamers”. (No, they won’t start with Blizzcon… Activision has just as much money to throw at this as Sony does.) Who would they go after first? PAX? Dragon*Con?
Here is how I imagine that court case would go…
Judge: “Dragon*Con, you’re being sued by Sony Computer Entertainment for violating their patent on ‘Coordinating real-world gatherings to promote an online community’, which was filed in October of 2010.”
Dragon*Con: “Your honor, this year, Dragon*Con celebrates it’s 26th anniversary, and it’s 10th year of “coordinating real-world gatherings to promote and online community”. Sony is aware of this prior art as they participated in several of these gatherings prior to 2010.
Judge: “Case dismissed”
On a personal note, when I first saw this, I was angry enough to really make a stink out of this. After doing a little digging, and understanding the relationships between the various groups within Sony, and understanding that the folks who come to Dragon*Con every year from SOE had nothing to do with this idiocy, I have decided to do nothing more than bring this to our community’s attention. Am I still ticked off about this? Absolutely. However, the most constructive thing we, the community, can do is spread word of this far and wide and work to make sure this patent never gets granted in the first place. (Write to the USPTO… Encourage others to do the same.) If we should fail there, then it is time to make a big stink.