Patenting movies? The MPAA says no

I had reported last year about a patent application in the United States that tried to obtain protection for a movie plot. The application is by one Mr Andrew Knight, who believes the USPTO should be granting patents for unique and inventive movie ideas. His website contains a brief explanation of his reasoning:

“A Plot or Storyline Patent application seeks to patent the underlying novel and nonobvious storyline of a fictional story. Such protection is to be contrasted from the copyright protection of one of millions of possible expressions of an underlying storyline. The field of possible applications is broad, and may tentatively be split into an entertainment-advertisement dichotomy. The epitome of an entertainment application is an original, thought-provoking, often shockingly unique movie plot. Several potentially patentable features may have been found in the plots of, Memento, The Thirteenth Floor, Being John Malkovich, Butterfly Effect, The Game, Fight Club, The Matrix, Total Recall, The Truman Show, Minority Report, The Village, Groundhog Day, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to name a few.”

Readers who are familiar with my line of thinking about patents will probably imagine that at the moment of reading such a steaming pile of post-digestive bovine refuse my blood-pressure has reached dangerous levels and I am about to go into a rant of some sort. Rest assured, I must admit that I’m not particularly surprised by this line of reasoning, it is a logical progression from what is already happening with the patently absurd idea that you can patent anything under the sun.

Mr Knight has put together a legal argument, which he has been pushing in his own website and on several journals. You can read a critique of Mr Knight’s ideas in an article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology. In my opinion, there are several problems with the patenting of movie plots. Firstly, copyright law is doing quite well, thank you very much. Secondly, the idea-expression dichotomy serves a purpose. You can come up with a novel idea, what really matters in the creative and entertainment industries is the expression of that idea, the uniqueness of the end-result. If somebody takes too much of your expression, then there is copyright infringement. We also have a form of societal protection of unique ideas. Why would anyone want to copy the plot of Memento or The Matrix? The result would not be the same, it would be a derivative of lesser quality, a rip-off. Copyright doesn’t preclude you from producing your own variation of the story, but copy too much and you infringe. The third problem is one of resources. Can you imagine poor patent examiners comparatively looking at movie plots?

The MPAA has issued a comment to the USPTO on this very subject, where they state that they oppose patent protection for movies. They state:

“The MPAA notes with some alarm a trend toward claiming inventions related to the creative arts using claim steps that recite events that are conveyed through an artistic expression (e.g., the actions a character in a story may perform). It is neither appropriate nor practical to evaluate the novelty and non-obviousness of a claimed invention through an assessment of the “quality” or “merits” of an artistic expression. Such claims are properly addressed through the application of the substantive requirements for patent eligibility.”

What would you know? I agree with the MPAA! The weather report for Hell reads: “Decidedly chilly, expect blizzards”.

By the way, for those who think that this is of no importance in Europe, remember that the EPO has a bad record on keeping patentable subject matter in reign. The words “computer implemented invention” come to mind.

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