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Valve Has A Big Controller Problem On Its Hands

Recently, the co-founder and president of Valve, Gabe Newell, turned heads by discussing a hypothetical controller that uses your brain's grey matter as a video game interface. Why stop with haptic feedback controllers that simulate the recoil of pulling a gun trigger when you can directly input the smell of gunpowder into a gamer's temporal lobe? Although, one must wonder why Newell is interested in reentering the controller market after Valve discontinued the Steam Controller in 2019, especially since the peripheral has been accused of infringing on another company's patent.

According to Law360, third-party controller producer SCUF formally accused Valve of breaching a patent from Ironburg Inventions — a branch of SCUF concerned with intellectual properties (IPs). Ironburg Inventions' lawyer Robert Becker claimed that the Steam Controller's rear paddles copied "rear-side control surfaces" patented by Ironburg shortly before the peripheral's release. As Becker recounted, SCUF CEO Duncan Ironmonger saw a prototype of Valve's Steam Controller at the 2014 Consumer Technology Association (CES) trade show, "informed Valve staffers" of similarities between the controller's rear paddles and Ironburg's soon-to-be-issued patent, and then followed up with a letter to Valve. But, Becker postulated that Valve went ahead anyway and intentionally infringed on the design.

As Becker put it, "Ironburg really created a new category of controllers," and Valve, aware of Ironburg Inventions' designs, knowingly infringed on it. While other companies such as Microsoft implement dorsal buttons into their top-tier controllers (e.g., the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller), those companies licensed the patent in order to use the design features.

Valve's attorney, Trent Webb, adamantly countered that Robert Becker's claims are "based on altered graphics, modified pictures, and skewed viewing angles[.]" Webb ridiculed Becker's entire case as an "alternative reality" that intentionally misrepresents the facts. To help prove his point, Webb mailed each of the jurors a Steam Controller, as he believes "first-hand knowledge" will help convince them that Valve's discontinued peripheral never infringed on Ironburg Inventions' patent. A large part of Webb's defense strategy is to reassure the jurors and judge that the Steam Controller's rear paddles, while similar in function to Ironburg's back buttons, are different enough in design that they don't copy any specific ideas.

This ongoing trial is merely the latest legal blow to Valve, as the company was recently fined by the European Commission for geo-blocking games and restricting activation depending on where players live and purchase their games. Valve has been ordered to pay the Commission almost $2 million in consumer-related damages.

Because of coronavirus lockdowns, the Ironburg Inventions/Valve trial is taking place via Zoom. At this time, it is difficult to say how long the litigation will last, let alone how it will turn out.