Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

When Sued Don't Tweet

The employer of one of my coding heroes, John Carmack is currently being sued by ZeniMax over unspecified IP that he may or may not have taken with him to his new spot.

He responded to the suit and inquiries by the general public with tweets here:

Oculus uses zero lines of code that I wrote while under contract to Zenimax.

And a slightly older one:

No work I have ever done has been patented. Zenimax owns the code that I wrote, but they don’t own VR.

Now, I understand the anger, I’ve been sued a couple of times and it is hard to describe the degree to which this sort of thing can affect you if you haven’t been through it. But anger is a bad advisor. I realize that when you are quite possibly sued in a way that you consider baseless and even mean that you are tempted to set the record straight publicly. After all, there are two courts, the court of public opinion and the court of law. The problem with that strategy is that you may unwittingly be giving your enemy ammunition in the court of law, and even though you think the public opinion one is important (and that may very well be so if you’re some kind of celebrity, this does not mean ‘everybody with a twitter account’) the court of law is the only one that matters. Winning in the court of public opinion will not even get you a cookie, losing in the court of law can cost you your shirt. See here for an exception to this (Oatmeal vs FunnyJunk).

When you’re being sued or could be sued, especially for $BIGNUM: Shut up on all your public channels, do not communicate with the media and talk to your lawyer and your lawyer only (and on that subject: the only lawyer that’s yours is the one you pay). The public can wait. Everything you enter into the public record will likely stay there, and it may very well be used against you or come back to haunt you (I see several problems with Carmacks’ statements that he probably is aware of, for one, IP involves a lot more than code and second not everything that is protected needs to be patented, for example, trade secrets, designs and prototypes). IP is a minefield of special cases and subtlety, twitter of all places is not where you deal with things like this as soon as things go the legal route.

For now the arrows seem to all be pointed at Oculus Rift (follow the money on that one), but with the ‘instrument’ of the transfer of IP being John Carmack it could very well end up with him being thrown under the proverbial bus, the stakes are more than high enough.

So, hold your head cool, don’t give in to the temptation to pre-empt any lawsuits and don’t inadvertently give your opponents lawyers ‘purchase’ in the form of ill thought out tweets. They’re just about un-retractable even if you delete them and they won’t change the facts to your advantage, and the facts are really all that matter. If there is no upside to moving: don’t move. The general public can wait until the case is dealt with and they’ll definitely be understanding if you clam up in the run up to a court case. You can bet that your opponents counsel is going to go through all your public statements with a fine comb to see if they can identify pressure points or strategy hints.

edit: fixed some factual errors, such as that Carmack is not (yet) named personally as a defendant. Thanks to: HN’er TodPunk https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7685884