March 19, 2006

Breaking the law

Michael Crichton, in today's New York Times, discusses the latest shenanigans in the strange world of patent and trademark law. To the average Joe, it seems truly amazing that people can own parts of our language and require the rest of us to pay royalties if we use them. Okay, maybe it's okay to protect names of products and to give patent protection to important procedures and formulae, but now a company called Metabolite wants to get royalty fees from everyone who says, "Elevated homocysteine is linked to B-12 deficiency, so doctors should test homocysteine levels to see whether the patient needs vitamins." Well, I'm sure not going to say it. Oops, I just did. For that matter, so did Michael Crichton and for all I know, anyone who forwards this post also may be in deep do-do.

On the brighter side, maybe Metabolite's proposal has possibilities for stopping some of the strange usage advice offered by the likes of Strunk and White. If they would charge a royalty for everytime someone cites their questionable sentences, it might encourage people to stop quotting them and, who knows, maybe even to stop following them.   For example, we could then get rid of the following S&W pronouncements:

  • In formal writing, the future tense requires shall for the first person, will for the second and third. [Royalty fee: $1,000]
  • That is the defining, or restrictive pronoun, which the nondefining, or nonrestrictive. [Royalty fee: $2,000]

The prospects are unlimited here.

Posted by Roger Shuy at March 19, 2006 09:56 PM