June 21, 2005

But how can you buy or sell a literary invention?

The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the text and the sparkle of its words, how can you buy them?

Richard "free software" Stallman has an article in the Guardian describing the dangers of a current move in Europe on extensions of patent law in the software domain. He has a cute take on how to make the issues more comprehensible even to those with skulls as thick as a Euro-politicians - an analogy with literary copyright law. Hugo's Les Misérables, he argues, would not have been publishable if anyone had patented the following:

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.

I gather that Stallman chooses Hugo as his example because it was Hugo who was one of the earliest advocates of patent law, proposing an extension of already extant copyright law to other domains - see this piece on Hugo by Geoffrey Barto. Stallman also suggests some even more general potential literary patents:

Communication process structured with narration that continues through many pages.

A narration structure sometimes resembling a fugue or improvisation.

Intrigue articulated around the confrontation of specific characters, each in turn setting traps for the others.

I'm not able to say whether the literary patent analogy is apt for current extensions of Euro patent law into the software domain, but the concept of a literary patent is fun. I'm reminded of this discussion of a real literary patent involving 68 claims: fortunately it protects a device which would do nothing whatsoever to enrich our language or literature.

I wonder what literary patents would cover this blog entry? A general patent on the quoting or paraphrasing of others would do the trick. My title and teaser, of course, paraphrase words standardly mis-attributed to Chief Seattle. Now there's a patentable idea: mis-attribution. If I could earn a cent for every published mis-attribution, I'd soon be able to build myself a penthouse on top of the Liberman suite in Language Log Plaza's Infinity Tower, so my address would be infinity + 1. And when I'm at the literary patent office, I'm gonna take out a patent on one of the most popular literary devices in academia: plagiarism. Yeah, there may be prior art, but who is going to own up to it? Soon, I will plagiarize freely and legally, while everybody else will have to ask my permission.

Posted by David Beaver at June 21, 2005 02:49 PM