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.