Oculus accused of stealing tech that powers its VR headset

Oculus prototypes seen at CES 2014 in Las Vegas.
Justin Solomon | CNBC

One of the video game industry's highest profile publishers is accusing Oculus of stealing its intellectual property to create the Rift virtual reality headset.

ZeniMax Media filed suit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Dallas, saying Oculus and founder Palmer Luckey "commercially exploited" ZeniMax computer code and trade secrets for their own gain. And it was that software that led to the $2 billion purchase of Oculus by Facebook in March

"Throughout 2012, Oculus and Luckey lacked the necessary expertise and technical know-how to create a viable virtual reality headset," ZeniMax says in the filing. "In the months following E3 [2012], Oculus and Luckey sought that expertise and know-how from ZeniMax. Without it, there would not have been a viable Rift product."

ZeniMax maintains it has invested tens of millions of dollars into the research and development of VR technologies—mainly through John Carmack's experiments with the field when he was an employee at Zenimax subsidiary id Software.

Carmack left ZeniMax and id Software last year to become chief technology officer at Oculus.

Oculus issued a release denying the claims. "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."

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The company also addressed these claims earlier in the month.

"There is not a line of ZeniMax code or any of its technology in any Oculus products," the company said in a May 5 statement. "ZeniMax has never contributed any IP or technology to Oculus, and only after the Facebook deal was announced has ZeniMax now made these claims through its lawyers."

ZeniMax says it has invested tens of millions of dollars into the research and development of VR technologies, with the first experiments with it occurring in the 1990s. In 2012, research led by Carmack, when he was an employee of id Software, the creator of iconic games like "Doom" and "Quake," led to several breakthroughs.

Carmack and Luckey first began communicating in April 2012, ZeniMax alleges in its filing, with Luckey sending over a crude prototype of the headset which "lacked a head mount, virtual reality-specific software, integrated motion sensors, and other critical features and capabilities needed to create a viable product."

Carmack and his team allegedly modified the headset and showed it off to select media at that year's E3 trade show, where it was universally praised.

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Days after the show, says ZeniMax, Oculus was formed—and Luckey and Carmack continued to correspond, according to the filing, and Luckey agreed to a nondisclosure agreement that specified the code remained ZeniMax property.

ZeniMax says it attempted to work out a compensation agreement with Luckey through the winter of 2013, but says the Oculus founder was "evasive and uncooperative" and "Oculus never provided ZeniMax with any compensation whatsoever."

"ZeniMax and id Software take their intellectual property rights seriously," said P. Anthony Sammi, who represents ZeniMax. "We now look to the federal courts and will pursue all appropriate measures available under the law to rectify defendants' egregious conduct."

—By Chris Morris, Special to CNBC.