The Magnavox Odyssey, the world’s first game console, wasn’t actually successful upon its initial release. While it would reimagine itself with the Odyssey 100 and 200 dedicated consoles as well as the Odyssey 2, the original model only sold 350,000 units over three years without any sort of true competition for comparison. However, despite the lackluster reception, the Odyssey made Magnavox a great deal of money. How so? Through a great American past-time: Litigation.
When Ralph Baer at Sander’s Associates was creating the Odyssey, he kept very detailed documentation nearly down to the day of it’s progress. This was important for having a legal claim to the technology they were working on, to show that it predated any other. The scope of their work was very specific as well. Baer made sure all of his patents related to games being played on a TV set – the video in video games – not any sort of screen (like in Spacewar!).
It’s important to understand, though, that what they patented wasn’t the very idea of a video game. Concepts like that cannot be patented, so they had to specify what their inventions truly covered. The main invention that Baer’s team was able to claim was something specific to the Ping-Pong game on the Odyssey, the original idea of Bill Rusch. On October 18, 1967 Rusch first docu- mented the idea for that game, and what the team had claims on was something much more specific to patent:
1. The invention displays objects on a television screen.
2. There are at least two objects, Object A (the paddle) and Object B (the ball).
3. When Object B hits Object A, Object B will go in a different direction then where it was first going.
At a basic level, this is Pong, Breakout, and the “ball and paddle genre”. At a broader level, this could apply in many other ways.
Basically, anything where an object hit another and then bounced, like – say – the trampolines in Mappy. But it did not specifically mean that all video games were covered under the patent scope. Space Invaders, for example, couldn’t be said to have a ‘bouncing’ object. However, if a company did lay claim to a game with those characteristics, Magnavox could sue.
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