Oculus fights back against claims it stole virtual reality technology

Video game company ZeniMax is claiming it owns at least some of the code that powers Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset. As Oculus was just bought by Facebook for $2 billion, the claim raises questions: opportunistic claims or murky legal waters?

Jae C. Hong/AP
Show attendees play a video game wearing Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets at the Intel booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Just weeks after Facebook purchased virtual-reality headset maker Oculus for more than $2 billion, another tech company has stepped in saying the groundbreaking technology is only partially Oculus’ creation.

Video game company ZeniMax is claiming intellectual property rights to Oculus’ signature Rift headset, saying that a former ZeniMax employee, who now works for Oculus, took the technological framework with him when he left the gamemaker. While it's unclear whether the accusation will hold up, it does raise questions about Oculus’ meteoric rise to start-up fame, and highlights the potential value of virtual-reality technology.

Back in 2012, John Carmack was a programmer at ZeniMax Media. According to ZeniMax, it was there that he came up with some fundamental code that now powers Oculus Rift, and used it to collaborate with Oculus founder Palmer Luckey on the ski-goggle-like headset that was demoed at a games convention. Mr. Carmack later left ZeniMax, and signed on as Oculus’ chief technology officer in August.

Oculus’ response to the claims has been swift and blunt.

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

"Despite the fact that the full source code for the Oculus SDK is available online (developer.oculusvr.com), ZeniMax has never identified any ‘stolen’ code or technology,” it adds in another statement.

However, this isn’t the first time the two companies have tangled. Back in 2012, ZeniMax and Oculus were in talks to give ZeniMax a small stake in the company due to intellectual property issues, but the talks fell through (though Oculus denies this). In addition, a version of ZeniMax’s game “Doom 3” created specifically for virtual reality headsets was supposed to ship with the original Oculus Rift, but that also fell through after ZeniMax wasn’t happy with monetary negotiations.

Though Oculus is standing its ground, ZeniMax seems ready for a fight.

"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,” says ZeniMax in a statement. “ZeniMax believes it is necessary to address these matters now and will take the necessary action to protect its interests."

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