Nintendo patents instant messaging in games

Nintendo has patented instant messaging technology for use in computer games in a move which some games industry observers speculate could give it negotiating leverage with rivals Microsoft and Sony.

The application was filed at the US Patent and Trademark Office in 2000 and the patent was granted this month. It describes a "messaging service for video game systems with buddy list that displays game being played."

The patent, seemingly filed in relation to earlier consoles, does not actually name any individual system, prompting speculation that instant messaging functions will be included in Nintendo's next games system, Wii.

The patent was filed two years before Microsoft launched its Xbox Live service, an internet-based online gaming and communication network. Some industry observers are speculating that Nintendo could use the patent to force a licence fee from Microsoft.

Another view is that the patent could be used for horse trading with both Microsoft and Sony. Many companies, particularly technology firms, build up war chests of patents to trade off with other companies because some patents are so broadly defined as to impinge on their own area of operation. Having a patent that covers someone else's area of operation is a useful bargaining tool in those situations.

"[The] messaging system includes a web server computer and at least two video game systems," reads the patent. "Each game system is configured to connect to the web server computer via the Internet and to communicate status data indicative of an activity engaged in by a user thereof."

It is unlikely that the patent will be permitted to cover the entire field of in-game instant messaging. Before this patent was filed, Sega's Dreamcast console contained some chat features, rendering any Nintendo claim to be the first to imagine in-game chat redundant.

Nav Sunner, a specialist in games law with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM said the patent grant could be ammunition for the USPTO's critics. "Instant messaging was patented by ICQ in 2002, based on an 1997 application. Clearly there is some overlap in these ideas. So it will surely be surprising to some and infuriating to others that Nintendo has succeeded in obtaining a new patent for the use of IM in games systems."

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