On July 1, a law firm representing Treehouse Avatar Technologies sent a legal packet to Bothel, Washington-based indie developer Bad Pug Games warning the two-man studio that it was violating an obscure 858 patent (U.S Patent 8,180,858) "Methods for Presenting Data Over a Network Based Network User Choices and Collecting Real-time Data Related to Said Choices."
Bad Pug Games makes a massively multiplayer web-based space strategy game called Starpires. Starpires is described as a "classic turn-based strategy game" in a "massively multiplayer environment" that is free-to-play. As of this writing it has three active servers with an estimated 27,756 player accounts. The letter signed by Stephen F. Roth from the Westfield, New Jersey-based law firm of Lerner, David, Littenberg, Krumholz, & Menlik, LLP went on to make the indie studio aware that its client holds the patent (which we've detailed in full below) and that it would like to work towards an amicable negotiation of a "license on favorable terms."
If the name Treehouse Avatar Technologies sounds familiar to you, that is because it sued Turbine Entertainment back in October of 2012 using the same 858 patent (see this story). As far as we are aware that case is still pending.
The reason that the claims related to this particular patent are so dubious is because the Ontario-based company received this patent in 2012 from the USPTO. Obviously games that use these methods have been around for decades, so it's hard to understand why this particular company would be able to file for and obtain a patent for such a vague and common framework.
Bad Pug Games has not indicated what it will do about this request for a license agreement from Treehouse, but clearly that company is not pleased that this company has moved on from targeting bigger companies such as Warner Bros. Interactive's Turbine to smaller and more vulnerable indie developers. Bad Pug Games thinks that it is not the only company to receive such letters from Treehouse's legal representatives, but as of this writing it is the only one we know that has been threatened with legal action.
Treehouse also holds U.S. Patent 8,082,329, or "Method and system for presenting data over a network based on network user choices and collecting real-time data related to said choices." That patent was filed for on November 30, 2010 and was approved on December 20, 2011. We could find no instance of Treehouse actually creating a product with the patent(s) it holds – in fact we couldn't even find a web site owned by the company describing what it does to make money. The only thing the company is associated with is using law firms to enforce the patents it holds…
Below is the patent description provided by the law firm to Bad Pug Games:
[Claim] "A method for collecting data from an information network in response to user choices of a plurality made while accessing said information network and navigating character-enabled (CE) network sites on said information network, said method comprising:
[Applicability] The method allows for users to create a customized character (avatar) or scenery and the character-enabled network site to collect the data based upon user choices for a character or scene. While creation of characters or scenes typically takes place at the beginning of a game, characters and scenes may be capable of being altered throughout a game. Man games have virtual stores, which users may purchase character traits or virtual goods for their characters using virtual currency. The information includes a user side and network site side. The network site side interfaces through a network that may include the Internet, Internet II, Intranets, and the like. A character-enabled (CE) network site may be the game site accessed by the user and makes use of data associated with a character, object or scene. Such data includes audio or visual data. The network may be capable of being accessed by a plurality of users.
We reached out to Turbine Entertainment, the lawfirm representing Treehouse, and Bad Pug Games for further comment on this story this morning. We will update this story with further details as they become available
You can find the letter and claim sent to Bad Pug Games below: