Via e-mail, I’ve been asked to give an opinion on this, in which the US Patent Office notes an application to patent story plots, the applicants reasoning apparently informed by the reasoning provided via software patents. People are already beginning to freak out about it, suggesting it’s the end of the literary world as we know it.
Well, first, let us note that the US Patent Office publishing an application is not the same as granting the patent, so everyone who is freaking out should recognize that. The patent on a plot has not been issued, just the notice that someone is trying to patent a plotline. The US Patent Office gets a lot of damn fool patent applications every year; this is probably just another one.
As to whether the patent has legal merit, well, I’m not a patent lawyer, so someone else will have to field this one. My "I am not a lawyer" opinion is that I don’t see how this patent will be granted as among other things requires a wholesale reinterpretation of ideas as "process," which seems unlikely to happen. There’s no actual process here, save what goes on in someone’s head. The actual patent application does try to cover the transfer of the idea/process from brain to mechanical/electronic storage, but while not being a patent lawyer, I’m not sure how those processes are the applicant’s to attempt to patent. This doesn’t even rise to the questionable level of a software patent, where at least the process of the code is implemented outside the human body; it’s hard to run software code in someone’s brain, but anyone who is aware of literature’s origin as an oral medium recognizes well the capacity for the entire process of literature to be contained wholly within the human body. Basically, I don’t see how you grant this patent without implicitly saying that thoughts in themselves are patentable, which is an interesting expansion of patent law.
Two practical considerations as well: The applicant’s reasoning here is that this is something of a broadside against Hollywood. Basically, this guy wants to eat Hollywood’s seed corn, and I can’t really imagine that an $80 billion industry wouldn’t react poorly to something like this (not to mention, say, the publishing industry). Also, ironically, an $80 billion industry is the one best positioned to take advantage of such a nonsensical application of patent law, as it already has lawyers, creative types and money, and the average creative joe has got himself and a jar of pennies. If you don’t think Disney, Warner Bros. et al. wouldn’t happily spend millions of dollars on an annual basis to lock up all the obvious plot ideas (including the ones already in their libraries), you have no conception of how Hollywood actually works.
This would create an interesting new job description: Plot Generator — people whose only jobs would be think up possible plots — or maybe not, as this is just the sort of data-crunching nonsense computers excel at. Also, it’s axiomatic that the studios would also force those creative people working with them to sign over their patents as a matter of course. So rather than protecting the little guy from the studios (the little guy, incidentally, being already amply protected by copyright), I suspect the practical effect will be to solidify the control of content even further into the hands of those with the money and their business interests already in the field. And then once that’s established, you can expect Disney, et al. to start lobbying for extensions to the patent length, further stifling independent creation. And then won’t this jackass feel stupid.
Basically, it’s idiotic from start to finish, and I hope (and expect) that the patent application will be denied.