One document could decide whether Oculus owes ZeniMax millions

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(Quakecon (Flickr))

The publisher of games like Doom, Quake, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and Dishonored issued a legal challenge to virtual reality company Oculus VR earlier today. Since its former employee John Carmack helped improve the Oculus Rift VR headset, warned ZeniMax Media, Oculus would have to pay. Initially, Oculus laughed off the threat, characterizing it as a cash grab timed to intercept the $2 billion Facebook deal. But it turns out that ZeniMax has more than threats: it has Oculus founder Palmer Luckey's signature on a piece of paper.

The document in question is an agreement that gave Oculus the ability to use a "VR testbed" provided by ZeniMax. We have since removed it from this article at the request of our source. The paper by itself, signed before Oculus even became a company, may not mean very much. For the most part, it looks like a standard non-disclosure agreement, the kind that people routinely sign whenever companies give one another permission to look at — but not obtain any rights to — another company's intellectual property. It could be as simple as "Palmer Luckey, you have permission to show the Oculus Rift running Doom, but you agree that Doom still belongs to us."

ZeniMax sees this as a smoking gun

But The Verge understands that ZeniMax takes this document to mean a whole lot more. They believe that anything John Carmack contributed to the Oculus Rift is now their property as a result. That may not just include code, but any other suggestions Carmack made as a consultant for Oculus while on the ZeniMax payroll. It could potentially mean that his role promoting the Oculus Rift could also be included. For instance, we understand that some of the original investors in Oculus were introduced to Palmer Luckey's project via John Carmack. It also sounds like Carmack wasn't working alone: that ZeniMax had an entire team on the project, several members of whom also joined Oculus VR when all was said and done.

All in all, the argument is that the Oculus Rift went from a janky prototype to being shown at the world's most important video game conference in the blink of an eye, thanks to the work that ZeniMax employees did under Carmack's watch, and that could be true. But we don't know if that would stand up in court, and without knowing what Palmer Luckey agreed to when he signed this document, and what John Carmack and his fellow id Software employees agreed to when they left id Software, it's hard to predict anything for sure.

Oculus declined to comment for this story.

There is one popular argument that ZeniMax may not be able to make, though: John Carmack says that the current Oculus Rift uses no code that he wrote while on the Zenimax payroll.

Update May 1st, 9:43PM: This article has been updated to reflect that we have removed a legal document at the request of our source.

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