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ZeniMax sues Oculus over virtual reality Rift tech

ZeniMax is taking the VR company and its 21-year-old founder to court for allegedly misappropriating trade secrets.

Josh Miller/CNET

ZeniMax Media, the owner of game developer Id Software and the previous employer of Oculus CTO and Id co-founder John Carmack, is suing Oculus VR and its founder Palmer Luckey.

The offense: Oculus, with its Rift virtual reality headset, is "illegally misappropriating ZeniMax trade secrets relating to virtual reality technology, and infringing ZeniMax copyrights and trademarks," ZeniMax says.

Oculus fired back in a statement provided to CNET, saying, "The lawsuit filed by ZeniMax has no merit whatsoever. As we have previously said, ZeniMax did not contribute to any Oculus technology. Oculus will defend these claims vigorously."

The feud stems from the fact that Carmack, who was hired by Oculus in August 2013 and left Id Software in November later that year, aided Luckey in developing his Rift virtual reality headset while still employed by ZeniMax. Carmack received one of only two Oculus prototypes in existence back when Luckey was tinkering with VR at the University of Southern California and then in online forums before forming his company.

The collaboration between Luckey and Carmack helped bolster the prospects for Oculus -- Carmack showed off the prototype at E3 that summer, generating waves of press -- leading into Oculus' blockbuster Kickstarter campaign in September 2012. That began a steady road of success for Luckey's company that culminated with a $2 billion Facebook acquisition in March 2014.

Oculus has yet to release a commercial product, but has sold now two iterations of its Rift developer kit. Despite that, it stands at the forefront of the nascent yet promising market for VR, which is poised to affect not only gaming, but nearly every form of media from film and TV to music and live performance.

Luckey, a formerly home schooled 21-year-old technical wizard, graced the cover of Wired magazine this month, heralded as the boy-faced father of the newest and most promising dream of virtual world building. And following the Facebook acquisition, VR now appears to be evolving with a far more expansive scope that includes virtual social experiences and unprecedented sensory experiments, the likes of which are already being developed with the Rift developer kit.

ZeniMax appears not to have taken kindly to Luckey's new fame. "Luckey has held himself out to the public as the visionary developer of virtual reality technology, when in fact the key technology Luckey used to establish Oculus was developed by ZeniMax," the company explained in its statement.

From left, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash, and Oculus CTO John Carmack. Oculus VR

The ZeniMax suit follows a series of legal exchanges between the two companies in late April. ZeniMax then alleged that Oculus and Luckey voided a 2012 nondisclosure agreement limiting the ways in which the company could incorporate Carmack's work into the Rift. ZeniMax said that Oculus even offered the publisher equity, but that the talks fell through.

"ZeniMax's intellectual property has provided the fundamental technology driving the Oculus Rift since its inception. Nevertheless, the defendants refused all requests from ZeniMax for reasonable compensation and continue to use ZeniMax's intellectual property without authorization," ZeniMax said.

Oculus denied these claims last month, saying, "It's unfortunate, but when there's this type of transaction, people come out of the woodwork with ridiculous and absurd claims. We intend to vigorously defend Oculus and its investors to the fullest extent."

So did Carmack, who took to Twitter to say that none of his work has ever been patented and that, while ZeniMax owns the code he wrote after acquiring Id Software in 2009, none of that code has ever made its way to the Rift headset.

In fact, Carmack told USA Today earlier this year that he left Id Software specifically because ZeniMax did not want him working on VR technology, including bringing support for upcoming Id title Doom 4 and the recently released Wolfenstein: The New Order to the Rift.

ZeniMax owns not only Id Software, the studio behind the iconic games Doom and Quake -- the success of which made Carmack an industry legend -- but numerous other game development houses, including The Elder Scrolls developer Bethesda Game Studios, subsidiary of Bethesda Softworks, and Arkane Studios.

"Intellectual property forms the foundation of our business," Robert Altman, CEO of ZeniMax, said in a statement. "We cannot ignore the unlawful exploitation of intellectual property that we develop and own, nor will we allow misappropriation and infringement to go unaddressed."

Update, 1:25 p.m. PT: Added comment from Oculus.