Zynga Claims Patent on “Online Currency”
Zynga, the authors of numerous popular Facebook games, recently submitted a patent application for “virtual currency” to the PTO. Zynga’s application seeks ownership of various methods of converting US currency into online currency. At first glance, it seems that the application will run into significant novelty issues – the use of online currency isn’t exactly new. However, Zynga has attempted to narrow the scope of their application. Specifically, the covered conversion is exclusively for online currency that cannot be converted back into US currency. This limitation distinguishes Zynga’s claim from the online currencies utilized by the thriving (and long-established) online gambling community. Nonetheless, the folks over at Second Life might be surprised to learn that non-refundable online currency was Zynga’s creation.
Zynga’s application also raises the question of what role patents should play in the rapidly developing online marketplace. Personally, I am disinclined to support broad patent rights in online technologies. At its most fundamental level, the internet is based upon open sharing of information. The capacity of individuals in an online community to adopt, change, and improve others’ ideas is the core of the internet’s creative force. In contrast, the basic goal of patents is to provide short duration monopolies to spur research and development. The patent doctrine is tailored to provide a counterbalance to high investment costs that might otherwise discourage entrepreneurs. In the online marketplace no such incentive is required; the general public freely assists in the testing and development of ideas. Given the reduced barriers to developing new technologies in the online sphere, a grant of monopolistic rights over such discoveries is both unnecessary and counterproductive.