The Steam Controller was far from the most successful product Valve ever launched. As an attempt to bridge the gap between PC and console gaming, it fell flat, and Valve discontinued the Steam Controller in 2019. However, Valve may have a bigger problem than an underperforming peripheral, as the company is now fighting a lawsuit alleging it stole one tech company’s design feature and used it on the Steam Controller.
Ironburg Inventions, the intellectual property arm of controller manufacturer SCUF, filed a lawsuit in Washington state. The complaint pertains to the buttons on the underside of the Steam Controller, as Ironburg’s lawyers claim Valve violated a patent for buttons that allow players to use more than just their index finger and thumb to interact with games. Microsoft previously leased this patent for its high-performance Xbox Elite Controllers, according to Law 360.
In opening arguments Tuesday, Ironburg’s lawyers compared the case to the battle between David and Goliath. They said of Valve, “Goliath does what Goliath wants to do.” They claim SCUF’s CEO informed Valve of the potential infringement in 2014 after seeing the Steam Controller showcased at the CES trade show.
Meanwhile, Valve’s lawyers claim Ironburg’s patent does not apply to the Steam Controller’s buttons. According to Valve, the patent refers specifically to elongated, protruding buttons extending from the top to bottom of the controller. This is the configuration used on the Xbox Elite controller. Meanwhile, the Steam Controller's buttons, made from flexible plastic that melds outward from the battery cover, and according to Valve this makes it legally distinct from the controls described in the patent.
Complicating matters is that the trial is taking place over Zoom due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Lawyers representing Valve claim that their opponents will attempt to use this to their advantage, according to Law 360, preventing Valve from getting a fair trial. They say much of Ironburg’s evidence comes from altered or otherwise misleading pictures and diagrams. “Ironburg’s case will be based on altered graphics, modified pictures, and skewed viewing angles,” said Attorney Trent Webb. He accuses Ironburg of presenting “an altered reality."
Webb claims Ironburg’s lawyers will highlight sections of the battery cover in a way that obscures the button’s appearance. To combat this, Valve is mailing Steam Controllers to all eight members of the jury. Valve believes the jury will find in its favor once they see and feel what the Steam Controllers for themselves.
A lot of money is potentially riding on the outcome of this case. Valve sold around 1.6 million Steam Controllers, and if the jury finds against them the court may force Valve to pay royalties for each unit sold. The court may also require Valve to pay financial damages if Ironburg can show it lost money due to Valve’s infringement. On the other hand, a win for Valve may open the door for other manufacturers to use similar designs.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, game demos have grown in importance. Demos allow game players to save money while still getting to try a lot of great games. That's why the Steam Game Festival was such an important part of 2020. Dozens of game demos were made available for the duration of each Steam Game Festival, helping drive up interest in some great 2020 and upcoming indie games. Now the Steam Game Festival is coming back to help kick off 2021 in PC gaming.
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