Okay, I leave town for a few days and you folks let another pox against

rational intellectual property law metastasize into the ideasphere: Some idiot wants to patent literary plots.

Okay, let’s review. The basic premise behind all reasonable

intellectual property law is the difference between idea and

expression. You can copyright a unique expression, not a broad idea. To

see this principle in action, one need only compare the new Battlestar Galactica with the original Star Trek

series. The two shows share some general likenesses, but anyone who was

watched more than one episode of either program will tell you the two

are different in every substantive way (dogmatically

idealistic vs. painfully naturalistic; broad cinematic license when it

comes to physics and technology vs. a sparse number of technical

conceits; a series of high-minded one-off parables vs. gritty, complex,

episodic character drama; Shakespeare vs. Hemingway).

Paramount and the estate of Gene Roddenberry have every right to enforce copyright over Star Trek, and all the likenesses and idioms unique to that universe (Beam me up Scotty, These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise, etc.).

What Paramount and the Roddenberrys don’t have is a right to bar anyone

from ever making a TV show, movie, comic book, novel, or video game

featuring the humanoid crew of a military spaceship. Space adventure

aboard a military starship is the idea, Star Trek is the unique expression. Star Trek‘s rightsholders can’t stop the Sci-Fi channel from making Battlestar Galactica,

because each show is a unique expression of a broader idea. This is how

it should be. If the USPTO starts granting plot patents, this is not

what we shall have.

While I’m all for forcing Hollywood to abandon formulaic plots every

now and then (especially as applies to romantic comedies), I really

don’t think the rightsholders to War of the Worlds should be able block production of Independence Day,

seeing as both have a band of plucky humans struggling to survive and

stave off an invasion by vastly technically superior interplanetary

aliens. (Worse, since WotW is nearing public domain, the makers of Independence Day

holding sway over any potential alien invasion movie.) And lest you

think this is alarmist, consider this: Which side has more money to

fund and win legal battles over plot originality, the Hollywood studios

who are poised to snap up every potential storyline lying in their film

catalogues, or the independent creators trying bring something new and

fresh into the world?

Patent law is supposed to make the world safe for innovators, not safe from

innovators. Why the USPTO can’t understand that is beyond me. If they

actually get around to denying this patent, it will be the first sign

of life from that all-too-powerful agency in quite some time. Here’s

hoping it happens.