ZeniMax accuses John Carmack of theft in amended Oculus Rift lawsuit filing

Bethesda Softworks and id Software parent company ZeniMax Media filed a lawsuit against Oculus VR in May 2014, accusing it of misappropriating trade secrets that were central to the development of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. The gist of the complaint is that technology used in the Rift was actually developed by Oculus CTO John Carmack while he was still at id, and that makes it the property of ZeniMax. 

Oculus, naturally, denied the allegations, saying that co-founder Palmer Luckey had created several Rift prototypes prior to meeting Carmack and that ZeniMax was simply hoping to win a quick settlement on the matter. But ZeniMax has doubled down on its claim in an amended filing, reported by Game Informer, which states that Luckey did not (and could not) invent the Rift headset, and outright accuses Carmack of stealing thousands of documents and a proprietary development tool prior on his way out the door. 

The original filing claimed that Luckey's “crude prototype” had been “literally transformed” by Carmack and other ZeniMax employees shortly after Carmack and Luckey began corresponding in 2012, and that Luckey's claims of being the creator of the technology were false. The new filing expands on that, however, by stating in entirely unflattering terms that the fiction was cooked up to cover the theft of ZeniMax's technology. 

“Oculus needed to be able to explain how it came to own VR technology, but did not want to acknowledge that it had misappropriated, and was using, ZeniMax's technology. Oculus, at [co-founder Brendan] Iribe's direction, disseminated to the press the false and fanciful story that Luckey was the brilliant inventor of VR technology who had developed that technology in his parents' garage,” the filing states. 

“In fact, that story was utterly and completely false: Luckey lacked the training, expertise, resources, or know-how to create commercially viable VR technology, his computer programming skills were rudimentary, and he relied on ZeniMax's computer program code and games to demonstrate the prototype Rift," it continues. "Nevertheless, this fraudulent tale was frequently reported in the media as fact. Luckey increasingly and falsely held himself out to the media and the public as the visionary developer of the Rift's VR technology, which had actually been developed by ZeniMax without any substantial contribution from Luckey.” 

The suit goes on to say that instead of paying to license the technology used in the Rift, Oculus simply recruited Carmack and other ZeniMax employees to its banner. Carmack continued to work as a part-time technical adviser to id Software after signing up with Oculus, but “during his last days at ZeniMax, he copied thousands of documents from a computer at ZeniMax to a USB storage device. He never returned those files or all copes of them after his employment with ZeniMax was terminated,” the suit says. “In addition, after Carmack's employment with ZeniMax was terminated, he returned to Zenimax's premises to take a customized tool for developing VR technology belonging to ZeniMax that itself is part of ZeniMax's VR technology.” 

The new filing also clarifies Facebook's role in the matter, stating that Facebook completed its $2 billion acquistiion of Oculus VR “with full awareness of ZeniMax's claims against Oculus and Luckey.” Oculus claimed to have “full title and ownership” of all related IPs and technologies in the acquisition agreement, but ZeniMax says “those representations were false, Oculus, Luckey, Iribe, and Carmack knew them to be false, and Facebook knew or had reason to know that they were false.” 

In response to the amended filing, an Oculus VR spokesperson said, “This complaint filed by ZeniMax is one-sided and conveys only ZeniMax's interpretation of the story. We continue to believe this case has no merit, and we will address all of ZeniMax's allegations in court.” 

I opined a couple of years ago that the sort of blunt language seen in the initial complaints did not suggest the likelihood of an amicable settlement happening anytime soon and so far, that prediction is holding. Given this new filing, I think I'll stand by my forecast for now: This is a dispute that looks set to be very long, and very ugly.