05 November 2005

Patent Nonsense

Neil Gaiman wonders about a patent application filed for a "storyline patent" and published a couple of days ago. I'll follow up with some specific observations based on the actual patent application in a couple of days (I'm out of town at the moment), but I'd like to begin with a couple of general observations.

I have already discussed the general scope of "fiction patents" in a slightly different context. As I remarked in a footnote to that entry,

[L]eaving aside the requirement that patented concepts must be reduced to practice before they're eligible for patent protection. That's just another small problem with Stallman's argument: It asserts that the idea alone is the subject of patent protection, which is inaccurate both in a technical and a conceptual sense.

This is a critical failure in the Knight patent application: At least from the face of the application, he has not reduced his "idea" to practice. Without a reduction to practice—whether one is dealing with a process patent or a product patent—one cannot be sure that the "idea" works… which is precisely why perpetual motion machines are not patentable subject matter.1

A proper patent:

  • Has utility,
  • Is not obvious to one skilled in the relevant arts,
  • Is novel and not anticipated by prior art, and
  • Is not merely a law of nature or natural phenomenon.

That's just a summary statement; there are more requirements, and these requirements have been worded to deal specifically with the Knight application. In any event, the Knight application fails all four of these requirements in concept, without even looking at its particulars.

  • What, precisely, is the utility of a "story structure" that has not been reduced to practice? Even if one could find such "utility," it would reside only in the particular method used—not the result achieved. This is the crucial distinction between traditional patents (which may involve processes, products, or both) and the so-called "business method" patent: the "business method" patent has utility only in a larger context. The Knight application cannot even make that claim.
  • The general description of the patent undermines this. One does not judge obviousness from a reader's viewpoint (in this context), but from a writer's viewpoint… or, perhaps, a scholar's or critic's viewpoint.
  • Anticipation by prior art is a somewhat complicated concept. Of course, if a prior work precisely delineates the application, the application has been anticipated. The key—and this is where the Knight application fails per se—is that anticipation can result from the congruence of several previous prior works.
  • This is a philosophical question that we'll get to another time. The key question here is a simple one: What is "plot"? Unfortunately, the—or an—answer to that question is far from simple.

Thus, if you're in the midst of writing (or, indeed, have already written) a story that might conceivably infringe the patent requested in the Knight application, on general principles you don't have a lot to worry about. A more-searching examination of the Knight application will make that even more clear.

  1. The article that Knight published is poorly researched and poorly reasoned, not to mention completely dismissive of the stated purpose (both in the statute itself and in the legislative history) of patents and the complete disjuncture from the constitutional authorization for patents. Perhaps the article is supposed to be a satirical criticism of the patent system; if so, it's a pretty abysmal one.