John Carmack is arguable a genius, and when Facebook lost to ZeniMax, he vented his frustration on Facebook. When programmers meet lawyers, the programmer usually ends up frustrated. When someone argues that “doing nothing can be considered doing something” then you start wondering if you are the only sane person in the room, or if you are being gaslighted by someone in suit.
I think John Carmack failed to realize just how far reaching non-compete covenants can be. In some states, an employment contract can contain elements that severely limit your ability to work in related industries, and – perhaps surprisingly – the company often owns everything you create while under contract, even if it was made in your spare time. In many cases, the company does the right thing, and let’s you own that indie-game you wrote on weekends and nights, but when Facebook buys a company for $2 billion, someone might catch the smell of sweet, sweet moolah.
Here’s how I see it.
In April 2012, John Carmack is working for ZeniMax and engages with Palmer Luckey regarding the initial HMD. It seems to me that John Carmack probably thought that what he did in his spare time was of no concern to ZeniMax, and that he was free to have fun with VR since ZeniMax was not interested in any of it.
At QuakeCon 2012 (August), Luckey Palmer is on stage with both Michael Abrash and John Carmack, talking about VR. Carmack, at this point in time is clearly a ZeniMax employee, and I have a very hard time thinking that Carmack didn’t work on VR related research at this point in time.
In August 2013, John Carmack leaves ZeniMax and joins Oculus. Then starts working full time on the VR stuff. ZeniMax doesn’t seem to care. Perhaps they expected that Oculus would soon crash and burn (it probably would have w/o Facebook intervening).
Less than a year later, in July 2014, 2 years after Palmer Luckey and John Carmack exchanged a few words on a message board, Oculus is worth $2 billion dollars to Facebook (According to Mark Zuckerberg they are now $3.5 bn in the hole with this acquisition).
John Carmack says that not a single line of ZeniMax code was used, and while that may be technically true, you could say that ZeniMax founded the research to figure the 700 ways not to make a lightbulb, Carmack then moves to Oculus, bangs the code together and the rest is history.
It’s pretty easy to convince someone who is not a programmer, that code was copied. It’s pretty easy to find a technically competent person who will say that code was copied, even if all programmers know that a lot of code looks kinda similar. Rendering a quad using OpenGL looks pretty much exactly the same in all apps, but is it copyright infringement?
Time will tell if Facebook/Oculus wins the appeal. I think the current verdict is fair (the initial $6 bn claim was idiotic).