The Goldberg Patent on Online Game Play
U.S. Patent No. 6,264,560
Latest Date That Material Can Qualify for Prior Art: January 19, 1996
I. General Description of the Invention
The Goldberg Patent claims to cover a variety of multi-player network "tournament-style" games, including those played online. These games consist of multiple players competing with each other over a network, with the winners continuing on to later rounds and the losers going home.
The primary example used in the patent is online blackjack. (See diagram).
However, parts of the patent claim to cover all forms of online tournament play, not just card games.
The patent contains over 100 distinct claims. However, we are most interested at this point in busting only five key ones (1, 16, 18, 20, and 92). We believe that if these five fall, it will have a significant impact on the patentee's ability to threaten online gaming sites and the enforceability of the remaining claims as well.
II. The Claims At Issue
A. Claim 1
Claim 1 covers a method for conducting network tournament games where players are split into different groups for each round where they play against each other; the winners of each round are then paired up in subsequent rounds to face off. The method requires each "round" of the overall tournament be defined either by a specific number of games played or a specific amount of time lapsing.
In Claim 1, one conducts a tournament as follows:
- Identifying players to be included in the tournament;
- Dividing the selected players into groups where they play against each other;
- Determining a winner from each group;
- Creating a modified version of the game by changing one of the rules of the game (e.g. whether you can "double-down" with a 10 or 11); and
- Combining the winning players from different groups into one or more new groups to play against each other with the newly modified rule from step (d).
B. Claim 16
Claim 16 covers a method of presenting advertisements to players participating in games as described in Claim 1. For each player on the network, the following steps are performed:
- A player transmits a request over a network to a game-playing node (e.g., network server) to play a game as described in Claim 1.
- The game playing node responds to the player's request with interactive game presentations (e.g. pictures of playing cards) sent to the player's computer;
- The gamer playing node also presents the player with multiple advertisements about products and services. These advertisements displayed on the player's screen concurrently with the interactive game presentations; and
- The game-playing node receives information about the player's response to advertising, such as recording clicks on the advertisements.
C. Claim 18
Claim 18 covers a method of distributing advertisements in conjunction with interactive computer games as described in Claim 16, whereby the transmission of games and advertisements is limited to taking place over the Internet, rather than also through generic networking such as a LAN.
D. Claim 20
Claim 20 covers a method for having a computer program simultaneously play a card game over a network with at least two different users using different sets of cards for each game. Specifically, the method includes the following steps:
- Generating electronic representations (e.g. visual images) of playing cards;
- Receiving player identification information (e.g. a username or log-in ID) for at least one player prior to starting the game and using the information to look up the player's game playing history (e.g. record of wins and losses);
- Playing a game between a first user and a "substantially electronic playing module" (e.g. computer opponent) where the playing module is dealt a hand of cards as part of the game (e.g. the computer is not just a poker dealer but an actual player as well); and
- Playing a game between a second user and the game playing module that overlaps in time with the first user's game (i.e. the computer opponent is playing both games simultaneously) where the game module's two hands differ by at least one card.
E. Claim 92
Claim 92 covers a method for communicating and displaying real-time player rankings, where the rankings are based on accomplishments in a network game (e.g. wins and loses, experience points, etc.). In this method, rankings are displayed to players currently online and updated regularly to reflect new accomplishments as they happen. Specifically, the method includes the following steps:
- Having multiple players log into a game playing node (i.e. server) to play the game at overlapping times;
- Transmitting "game plays" (e.g. actions, movements, card deals, etc.) from the game server to a player's computer;
- During the first user's game, transmitting a "ranking" of second user to the first user's computer, the ranking reflecting a "proficiency" of the second user in playing the game (e.g. a win-loss record or skill level); and
- Updating the ranking information for the second user on the first user's computer while the first user continues to play her game.
III. Description of the Prior Art Needed to Bust This Patent
The Goldberg patent is based on an early application that was filed on January 19, 1996. Thus, in order to bust the Goldberg patent, EFF needs to locate prior art that was publicly available before that date. Prior art can be in the form of a published patent, a printed publication (e.g. web page, newsgroup post, conference presentation, magazine article, technical paper), or a product manual or literature related to a product or its sale. Publicly available software that was distributed before the critical date and demonstrates the functionalities described in the patent may also be used as prior art.
In order to bust the Goldberg patent, we must find prior art that covers all the elements of at least one of the five claims listed above. Technically, we need to bust every single claim in the patent in order to invalidate the entire patent; however, invalidating any claim helps narrow the patent and make it less formidable.
Below is a claim-by-claim description of the prior art we are looking for:
Model prior art for Claim 1 would be a description of a network tournament game, possibly in a trade publication or user manual, which describes the architecture of the tournament. The ideal prior art for this claim would likely be an article or online manual that describes tournaments held on a pre-World Wide Web BBS system or OSP network (e.g., The ImagiNation Network/Sierra, CompuServe, AOL/ Q-Link, Leisure-Link, etc.) The article must mention that there are a certain number of rounds in the tournament, or that there is a time limit. Additionally, at least one rule of the game must change from round to round. For example, in a role-playing game, a character's "powers" might change or the number of points for completing a specific task might increase or be multiplied in higher rounds. The game "Federation," a multiplayer space fantasy game, is of particular interest and any documentation about the game is desired.
Specifically, prior art to bust Claim 1 must describe or perform the following:
- Identifying specific players who want to play in a tournament;
- Dividing the players into groups that will play against each other;
- Determining a winner from each group;
- Creating a modified version of the game by changing at least one of the game rules (e.g. extra lives, different options, etc.); AND
- Combining the winners from the previous groups into one or more new groups to continue playing against each other with the modified rules.
Model prior art for Claim 16 would be a description of advertisements being combined with any form of networked computer game play. Documentation that advertisements were displayed simultaneously with networked game play would provide the needed prior art. Claim 16 covers any type of computer networking, so advertisements served on mainframe computer systems, private networked kiosks, and even internal networks in casinos would fall under Claim 16 and could provide evidence to invalidate the claim if the advertisements displayed concurrently with electronic games.
Claim 18 merely presents a smaller subset of Claim 16 whereby the game player's computer transmits and receives the game data over the Internet. Early game networks like the ImagiNation Network/Sierra did not feature advertising, but other networks such as CompuServe, Prodigy, and Genie were known to serve up advertisements. America Online was in operation for several years before the patent's critical date, and likely included advertisements with their online games. Any published information describing the combination of advertisements with interactive online gaming would provide the necessary prior art for this claim.
Model prior art for Claim 20 would be a description of a network card game where a computer game server plays cards against two or more users at the same time with different hands. The casino games found in old versions of The ImagiNation Network included all of these features and any documentation about them is requested. While most online (BBS, OSP, etc.) card games would meet all of these criteria, the needed prior art would have to explicitly mention all the elements listed below:
- Electronic representations (e.g. visual images) of playing cards;
- Using player usernames and/or log-ins to track and look up player histories; and
- The ability to have the game server play multiple separate games against users who are logged in at the same time using different decks of cards.
This claim is simpler than it might seem at first glance. Prior art for this claim should describe a system that allows multiple users to log in separately, but simultaneously, such that a user's ability to log on is not prevented by having one other user already in the system. The game play is transmitted from a central system to each user separately. This is basic network architecture that any multi-user online system would have. In a prior art reference, this capability might be implied by reference to lists of other players already logged on, etc.
More importantly, however, a user must be able to receive updated rankings of another player while the user is still playing the game. The claim requires that the rankings of users simultaneously logged into the system be updated and visible to other members. The game "Shadow of Yserbius" originally found on The ImagiNation Network is believed to have included all these features, but further documentation is needed. The game "Netrek" is also of particular interest. It was one of the earliest interactive multiplayer games to use a game server over a network. Specifically, valid prior art must describe the following:
- The ability to have multiple players log in and play the game at the same time;
- The ability to transmit game information from a central game server to multiple user clients; and
- The ability to transmit other player's rankings, update them, and display them while each user is in the middle of a game.