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John Carmack refutes "misdirection" of ZeniMax lawyers

The Oculus chief technology officer has taken to Facebook to complain about the $500 million verdict [UPDATE: ZeniMax responds]

Yesterday, the big legal battle between ZeniMax and Oculus came to an end, resulting in a $500 million award for the former. Today, former id Software executive John Carmack, who was at the heart of the lawsuit because Oculus founder Palmer Luckey had met with him and signed an NDA years ago, decided to express his sentiments about the suit's proceedings on Facebook. You can read the post in its entirety here but the key point Carmack took issue with was how Zenimax's expert witness claimed he "non-literally copied" source code he had from ZeniMax.

"The Zenimax vs Oculus trial is over. I disagreed with their characterization, misdirection, and selective omissions. I never tried to hide or wipe any evidence, and all of my data is accounted for, contrary to some stories being spread," Carmack began. "Being sued sucks. For the most part, the process went as I expected. The exception was the plaintiff's expert that said Oculus's implementations of the techniques at issue were 'non-literally copied' from the source code I wrote while at id Software. This is just not true. The authors at Oculus never had access to the Id C++ VR code, only a tiny bit of plaintext shader code from the demo. I was genuinely interested in hearing how the paid expert would spin a web of code DNA between completely unrelated codebases."

"The notion of non-literal copying is probably delicious to many lawyers, since a sufficient application of abstraction and filtering can show that just about everything is related," he continued. "There are certainly some cases where it is true, such as when you translate a book into another language, but copyright explicitly does not apply to concepts or algorithms, so you can't abstract very far from literal copying before comparing. As with many legal questions, there isn't a bright clear line where you need to stop.

"The analogy that the expert gave to the jury was that if someone wrote a book that was basically Harry Potter with the names changed, it would still be copyright infringement. I agree; that is the literary equivalent of changing the variable names when you copy source code. However, if you abstract Harry Potter up a notch or two, you get Campbell's Hero's Journey, which also maps well onto Star Wars and hundreds of other stories. These are not copyright infringement."

Carmack went on to note that Oculus' expert during the following week then took the slides from Zenimax and enlarged them so everyone could read the code lines and see the differences. "I had hoped that would have demolished the credibility of the testimony, but I guess I overestimated the impact," he stated.

Sometime after his meeting with Luckey, Carmack began working on some of his own VR software. In fact, this editor was one of the lucky ones to meet with Carmack at E3 and test out Doom 3 in a duct-taped VR headset. Carmack was so excited by the VR space that he went on to join Oculus in 2013. Facebook then acquired Oculus in 2014 for nearly $3 billion, which certainly was useful to the company from the legal perspective. Defending itself against ZeniMax as a small VR startup could have been financially disastrous.

Update: ZeniMax representatives have sent a response to Carmack's Facebook post, noting that there was both literal and non-literal copying by Oculus programmers. ZeniMax insists that the Rift headset was built "on a foundation of ZeniMax technology."

Here's the full statement:

“In addition to expert testimony finding both literal and non-literal copying, Oculus programmers themselves admitted using ZeniMax's copyrighted code (one saying he cut and pasted it into the Oculus SDK), and Brendan Iribe, in writing, requested a license for the “source code shared by Carmack” they needed for the Oculus Rift. Not surprisingly, the jury found ZeniMax code copyrights were infringed. The Oculus Rift was built on a foundation of ZeniMax technology.

"As for the denial of wiping, the Court's independent expert found 92% of Carmack's hard drive was wiped-all data was permanently destroyed, right after Carmack got notice of the lawsuit, and that his affidavit denying the wiping was false.

"Those are the hard facts.”

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James Brightman avatar

James Brightman


James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.