Thursday, November 03, 2005

Patenting Storylines?

The USPTO has published the first patent application to claim a fictional storyline. What does this mean? It means that the author of this provisional patent application, Andrew Knight, can now "assert publication-based provisional patent rights against anyone whose activities may fall within the scope of his published claims, including all major motion picture manufacturers and distributors, book publishers and distributors, television studios and broadcasters, and movie theaters." Knight's story is about an applicant to MIT who is so anxious to know if he has been accepted that he prays one night to stay sleeping until the admissions letter arrives. 30 years later, the lost letter arrives and he wakes up to find that he has lived a normal life, of which he remembers nothing, and must spend the rest of the story rediscovering who he was during that lost time as a "philosophical zombie."

Taken as a whole, a patent on such a concept doesn't seem too worrisome at first -- but when we get a look at the individual claims, it will likely be more troublesome. Just a few months ago, The Guardian outlined just such a scenario and its disasterous results:
Here's one example of a hypothetical literary patent:

Claim 1: a communication process that represents, in the mind of a reader, the concept of a character who has been in jail for a long time and becomes bitter towards society and humankind.

Claim 2: a communication process according to claim 1, wherein said character subsequently finds moral redemption through the kindness of another.

Claim 3: a communication process according to claims 1 and 2, wherein said character changes his name during the story.

If such a patent had existed in 1862 when Les Misérables was published, the novel would have infringed all three claims - all these things happened to Jean Valjean in the novel. Hugo could have been sued, and would have lost. The novel could have been prohibited - in effect, censored - by the patent holder.
The article points out that Hugo might have infringed not only the above fictional patent, but other simple patents as well, such as a patent on a "fictionalised portrayal of the Battle of Waterloo." Likewise, if the three claims listed above belonged to seperate patents instead of a single patent, Les Misérables would have infringed all three.

If the entertainment industry becomes as entangled with plotline patents as the tech industry is with software patents, we might begin to see the decline of the independent filmmaker (who can't afford the licensing and litigation costs that large studios will certainly impose), increased production costs, and greatly decreased diversity of offerings -- all symptoms of a market that thrives more on monopoly power than on innovation.

Updated: see new post describing some details of the patent.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, Americans, maybe you would allow to patent the breathing process? Quite a good idea, don't you think? It's soooo good to be born in Europe...

8:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Euro, you're an idiot! Obviously, not all Americans want to patent everything....bonehead!

11:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obviously not! But then, why do such idiotic patent ideas invariably come up in the USA? There must be a higher proportion of idiots there than anywhere else. Heck, you've got one of them as president! People have the government that they deserve? Quite!

2:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And people get the economy they deserve, through their willingness to take risks and innovate.

2:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an American who often disagrees with pretty much everything out of our current president's mealy mouth, I have to say that the original comment is completely without merit. Want to give someone who may be teetering on the edge of an informed opinion a reason to unify around the idiot? Attack them as being "American" and therefore obviously part of the problem. People EVERYWHERE fall into the same traps.

5:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


At the start of the article, I thought maybe it was "The Count of Monte Cristo". I don't remember if he is redeemed in the end by the kindness of a stranger...

If not, would the first half violate the patent? Or is it prior art? DOes the redemption have to happen, or is a fragment of the story still patented? If I made it a comedy, would satire be a valid patent exception, as with copyright?

Looks like a royal flaming can'o'worms to me.

5:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I sent the patent office an email -

Dear Patent Office

Please think carefully about the damage you will cause if you allow story ideas to be patented. A single plot line such as the the one under current consideration '804

1. A process of relaying a story having a timeline and a unique plot involving characters, comprising: indicating a character's desire at a first time in said timeline for at least one of the following: a) to remain asleep or unconscious until a particular event occurs; and b) to forget or be substantially unable to recall substantially all events during the time period from said first time until a particular event occurs; indicating said character's substantial inability at a time after said occurrence of said particular event to recall substantially all events during the time period from said first time to said occurrence of said particular event; and indicating that during said time period said character was an active participant in a plurality of events.

if written by ten different authors, would each be unique item. If plots could be patented it would make it virtually impossible to create anything. An article from the Guardian Newspaper in England covers what might occur under this situation.,12449,1510566,00.html

I urge you to deny this patent application.

Kind Regards,

Adam Wieland.

I don't know if it will do anything, but if enough people contact them - whio knows?

6:08 AM  
Blogger Jackson Lenford said...

The letter to the USPTO is good. You might want to draft similar letters to your senators and congressional reps. If you do, making parallels between storyline patents and software & business method patents might be a good idea.

Thanks for taking action! That's the main objective of this humble little blog. We can't fix the insanity unless we act.

7:20 AM  
Anonymous Adam Wieland said...

I got a reply, however I am not sure if they understood what I was refering to:

Your inquiry involves copyright law, which is beyond the jurisdiction of the USPTO. For information on copyright protection, you must contact the U.S. Copyright Office, which is a division of the Library of Congress. This office is not affiliated with the USPTO. Their website address is

Copyright is a form of protection provided to the authors of ""original works of authorship"" including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished. The 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work, to perform the copyrighted work publicly, or to display the copyrighted work publicly.

The copyright protects the form of expression rather than the subject matter of the writing. For example, a description of a machine could be copyrighted, but this would only prevent others from copying the description; it would not prevent others from writing a description of their own or from making and using the machine. Copyrights are registered by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.


I'm in Australia so I doubt any American Senator is going to pay much attention to me. :) In their reply though is that a clue about how they would proceed, rejecting the application because ""original works of authorship"" fall under copyright law and not patent law?

2:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was recently pointed to a *very* interesting online paper at that gives the most thorough treatment I've yet run across of what exactly constitutes the conservative / liberal divide, and lays out the argument that conservativism is ultimately about justifying an aristocracy. The paper also describes how any entrepreneurial developments are at their root extremely threatening to the aristocrats, as these can change the balance of power in the society. Given that, in the modern US, the hereditary houses of old have been at least partially replaced by corporations, we should not be too surprised to find that corporations are working very hard to put a lock on all means of production, including forms of production as fundamental as storytelling.

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"People have the government that they deserve? Quite!"

Yes, I deserve to be governed by a moron. I mean, it was my choice, after all, to be born here.

4:46 PM  
Blogger rancor said...

Let me start off by saying:

I am against software, business process, and certainly literary patents.

Let me continue by saying:

I think it is time to free the marketplace and American citizens from the injustice of patents altogether.

I have written about this before: I'm not seeking to find a way to have the world stay as it is in the wake of dissolving the patent system. But the world WILL go on. There still WILL be innovation. People WILL still take risks.

Patents are singularities in a market-economy: they accord unjustified influence to the flow of capital. I.E. they are contrary to a market economy because large patent holders can simply use the gravity of their holdings to attract more patents, therefore continuing to increase the imbalance.

The market place needs to be purely driven by competition, and that competition (not necessarily the competitors) needs to be on an even playing field, patents of any kind subvert this.

Take with a healthy dose of salt, remarkably though some of you will get this. With any hope the disease of patents can be cured.

10:13 PM  
Anonymous Bill said...

Patents are not necessarily a bad thing, even software patents. I think it's great to know that you can just come up with a great idea, patent it, and get rich. It's part of the American dream. I doubt anyone wants to strip the idea of Joe Sixpack hitting it rich by inventing the next hula hoop or flowbee or whatever.

But the problem is there's no clear way to draw the line between that and the abuses of the patent system that have been happening lately. It's up to the humans at the USPTO to accept or reject patents according to a reasonable standard, and I think that's where the problem lies. We don't need to abolish patents, we just need better people at the USPTO. Who appoints them? What accountability do they have? What laws can we fight for or against to improve the system? I think that's where the focus should be.

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think everybody should be intitled with their own opinion.
If you want to patent something thats your choice. But there is a line between stupid things to patent and reasonible things.A storyline for example is something that comes from the mind and sometimes the heart.Say you had a moment and you come up up with this great story and you know its going to make money or you just want to get your view out. Then out of nowhere, someone comes and steals your idea, gets rich or famous and you are left in the dust..... WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO THEN??

2:01 PM  

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