John Carmack's Former Employer Says He Stole Their Tech

John Carmack's Former Employer Says He Stole Their Tech

Doom co-creator and all-around genius John Carmack left the company he helped found last year. Now the people he used to work for say he took their technology with him.

Last year, Carmack left id Software for the virtual reality company Oculus Rift, which was purchased by Facebook earlier this year for $US2 billion. Zenimax, the parent company of id, is now threatening legal action, claiming that Carmack took proprietary technology he developed at id and used it to help "develop and market" the Oculus Rift goggles, which allow you to look around and virtually inhabit a video game world.

There have been no lawsuits filed yet, but both parties have swapped formal letters about the issue. The Wall Street Journal saw documents exchanged between lawyers from Zenimax and Oculus, and the claims are harsh.

"It was only through the concerted efforts of Mr Carmack, using technology developed over many years at, and owned by, ZeniMax, that Mr Luckey was able to transform his garage-based pipe dream into a working reality," Zenimax lawyers wrote to Oculus and Facebook, according to the Journal.

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

And here's the full statement Zenimax sent out to media including Engadget:

ZeniMax confirms it recently sent formal notice of its legal rights to Oculus concerning its ownership of key technology used by Oculus to develop and market the Oculus Rift. ZeniMax's technology may not be licensed, transferred or sold without ZeniMax Media's approval. ZeniMax's intellectual property rights arise by reason of extensive VR research and development works done over a number of years by John Carmack while a ZeniMax employee, and others. ZeniMax provided necessary VR technology and other valuable assistance to Palmer Luckey and other Oculus employees in 2012 and 2013 to make the Oculus Rift a viable VR product, superior to other VR market offerings.

The proprietary technology and know-how Mr. Carmack developed when he was a ZeniMax employee, and used by Oculus, are owned by ZeniMax. Well before the Facebook transaction was announced, Mr. Luckey acknowledged in writing ZeniMax's legal ownership of this intellectual property. It was further agreed that Mr. Luckey would not disclose this technology to third persons without approval. Oculus has used and exploited ZeniMax's technology and intellectual property without authorization, compensation or credit to ZeniMax. 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. ZeniMax believes it is necessary to address these matters now and will take the necessary action to protect its interests."

Carmack also chimed in this afternoon:

Seems like this battle is just getting started. We'll keep you updated as we hear more.


    The ... know-how Mr. Carmack developed when he was a ZeniMax employee, and used by Oculus, (is) owned by ZeniMax.


    No company owns the experience of an employee.

      Yes and no. This kind of thing can get very messy from a legal standpoint. It really depends a lot on the wording of Carmack's contract.

      A lot of companies like to include specific clauses stating that any new technologies, processes, techniques etc. that are developed while working as an employee automatically become the intellectual property of that company. It doesn't even necessarily have to be related to anything they officially worked on either.

      The wording and details in the claims here are all very vague, but it sounds less like Zenimax is saying he stole anything specific, but more that he carried out work on VR while still under their banner, and now they want a piece of the $2 billion pie.

        Yes, anything they produce or develop. 'Know-how' aka experience and ability, hell no.
        Edit: From Carmack:
        Oculus uses zero lines of code that I wrote while under contract to Zenimax.

        Last edited 02/05/14 8:57 am

          I mostly agree, but in the end it comes down to your definition of "know-how". It's not so much a person's ability that you can claim ownership over, but the methodology they use to express that ability. I agree with what you're saying, I just don't necessarily think that's the exact definition of what ZeniMax is going after in this case.

          For example, let's say I work for a company as a scientific researcher. My former employer can't claim ownership over my expertise and experience in my field when I leave, even if they gave me substantial training while I was there. If I develop any new methods or techniques while working for them however, it becomes a different story, because my contract specifically states that anything I come up with while under their banner is their intellectual property. This default ownership can be pretty damn broad, so in most cases it's usually better to keep any substantial work of your own under your hat until you've well and truly left the company, so this kind of shit doesn't happen.

          In this case it's still very vague though, as we don't know what exactly they're claiming the rights to. If it all turns out to be nonsense, I'm sure Facebook has enough money and lawyers to look after themselves.

            A reasonable example, for sure.
            I've also seen my fair share of IP ownership and non-compete clauses when it comes to working as a developer (and looked at subsequent court cases that test them in this country), and when it comes down to it, you can't make someone unlearn anything they've picked up while at your company, and you can't stop them from seeking gainful employment.
            If there's no patents and no source code going from one side to the other, it's going to be interesting to see how they make a case with this one. Keeping in mind that this is just the threatening letter / bluff stage, there's no legal action yet.


              We'll have to wait and see how this one plays out, but it should be interesting to see whether ZeniMax actually have any legitimate claims, or whether they're just butt hurt.

                Things may be very different in the US, but here in Aus a contract that an employer gets employees to sign is not necessarily binding in respect to things the employer has put in; at the end of the day the law over rides various stuff they put in. E.G., if you sign a contract that says "Must wear green shirt every day, no exceptions" and the law says "it is unreasonable to make employee's wear green everyday" then your employer can't do shit about it (They will try, but at the end of the day the law overrides it) - (I'm obviously not a lawyer so don't take my exact wording literally)

                I had to deal with some legal mumbo a while ago and this is what my Barrister explained to me.

                  This only applies to things prohibited by law. Rights granted by law can be waived by contract terms. In your example, this would be if the law said 'you have the right to wear whatever you like', the contract requiring you to wear green is valid because by signing it you waive your legal right.

            The company would have the option to patent the inventions you made while working for them, but Carmack is claiming that they never did that for the things he worked on.

            He also claims that he hasn't reused any code he wrote for Zenimax, which would knock out copyrights too. That just leaves trade secret protection, which is somewhat harder to prove.

              It also leaves intellectual property rights, which is what the statement by ZeniMax above specifically mentions.

                "Intellectual property rights" is jut an umbrella term for patents, copyrights and trade secrets. It's also a pretty useless term in trying to understand an issue like this, since each type of property has a different protection.

                Copyright lets you decide who can copy a work, and under what terms. It doesn't give you any control over similar independent works even if they do the same thing. Copyright owned by a company nominally lasts 90 years in the US, but the term keeps on increasing so may as well be infinite.

                Patents cover an invention, and mean anyone who implements that invention (even if they independently came up with the idea). Patents last for 20 years.

                Trade secrets give a company protection over information they haven't disclosed outside the company (or only disclosed under NDAs). It's probably the weakest protection, since it disappears if the company exposes the secret or if it becomes generally known.

                We have Carmack claiming that it couldn't be the first two, which is why I speculated that this might be trade secrets.

                  While I agree that the matter likely comes down to trade secrets (which are fairly well protected), intellectual property goes beyond the three categories you mentioned. It includes the obvious missing one of trademark, and also trade dress, design rights, breed rights (eg. for plant strains), protection certificates for medical, biological and pharmaceutical products, and others. It also has overlap with terms of contract that assign ownership of works and processes to the company that aren't otherwise covered by specific laws.

                  ZeniMax is laying claim to two things according to their statement: technology and know-how. The technology case is simple - while working for ZeniMax, Carmack developed technology that ZeniMax shared with Oculus. That technology remains the property of ZeniMax regardless of who developed it (as is standard in any development contract) and cannot be transferred by Carmack's authority alone. Carmack's knowledge of the workings of that technology, and particularly the solutions to challenges that were overcome in the development of that technology, are processes and practices effectively covered under trade secrets.

                  ZeniMax listed both technology and know-how in their statement above, suggesting that they may have evidence that something copyrightable was indeed transferred. We'll have to watch the future of the proceedings to find out.

                  @zombiejesus: I'm not sure why trademarks escaped me. The others I hadn't really thought of since they don't usually affect software. It seems unlikely that the dispute is about trade marks though, unless Oculus's next product is going to be called the "Oculus Quake" :)

                  I still stand by the statement that it isn't useful to talk of "intellectual property" without specifying which particular type is involved, since they have such widely different protections and the defences against each type of claim are so different too.

    I preordered dk2. Fuck I hope they still ship it in August
    This may be a serious nail in Oculus' coffin

      Doubt it, I think Facebook could out lawyer ZeniMax

        I really hope Zenimax does sue Oculus. They're (Zenimax) an arsehole of a company that only rides on the coattails of its more successful developers (ie; Bethesda).

        I would love to see them go up against Faceculus.


        Facebooks laywers can only do so much.
        If its proven that Cormack signed a contract like said, then Facebook are gonna have a very hard time fighting a contract signed by a sane man, even with the best laywers. Plus Zenimax has the money also to hire the best laywers.
        These type of cases pop up a couple of times a year and the contract always wins.

        Last edited 02/05/14 11:00 am

    Every official work contract i have come across clearly requires you to acknowledge that any invention, process or other created whilst under your employment belongs to them

      You have to keep in mind that a contract is only valid insomuch as it is enforcable by law. The problem with those clauses is that they breach many "right to ply trade" laws.

    So basically, Zenimax saw that Oculus Rift now has $2 billion and want to wet their beaks.

    You stay classy, American businesses.

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