Recently, video game fans erupted over reports that a Sony “patent” protected real-time in-game help systems. According to the reports, Sony is developing an in-game suggestion system for its new PlayStation 5 console, set for release in late 2020. If a player reaches a difficult level, the console offers help in the form of a pop-up. The in-game help might cost money, following on a controversial trend of “microtransactions” in video games. As such, Sony effectively filed patent applications on microtransactions.

A microtransaction is an in-game content purchase that continues a revenue stream for a game developer during gameplay. Sony’s “patent” would open the door for in-game strategy guide microtransactions. That could open a Pandora’s box for constant in-game purchases.

Except, Sony didn’t “patent” this microtransaction system. Instead, Sony filed patent applications on microtransactions (US and international) that recently published. In fact, the Sony system is far from being “patented” at the moment. The international application was rejected (based on a patent application from King.com, the makers of CANDY CRUSH SAGA®). The United States Patent and Trademark Office is yet to examine the US version of the application.

Patent Applications Aren’t Patents

Often, articles refer to a technology from a big company as a “patent,” when in reality, the company simply filed a patent application. Patent filings are useful indicators of possible products and features. If a company plans to introduce a unique technology to the marketplace, the company should certainly seek a patent on the technology. However, it is important to note the difference between a patent and a patent application. A patent is an examined and issued property right, granting a 20-year monopoly on an invention. A patent application describes a technology but has not yet issued as a full patent, a grant that may not ever happen.

In Sony’s case, the company might use a new in-game help microtransaction technology in its PlayStation 5 console. Such a technology would be controversial, given the legal troubles associated with microtransactions. However, Sony may be testing the waters with the patent application on microtransactions to see if the USPTO grants a patent. Only time will tell; however, the distinction between a “patent” and a “patent application” is important and should not be ignored.