Can you patent a plot for a new book, film, or play?

The USPTO recently issued a forceful “no” to an applicant who tried to do so.  In 2003, patent attorney Andrew Knight began promoting the idea of “storyline patents”, and he sought claims covering methods of performing and displaying certain combinations of plot elements. 

Thanks to Peter Zura’s 271 Patent Blog for first reporting on a USPTO Office Action that reads more like a legal brief — or perhaps a law review article — than the typical USPTO rejection.  Describing the history of US and English intellectual property laws since 1624, the Office Action lays a constitutional foundation for its rejection, explaining that:

Congress created two separate forms of intellectual property – copyrights (under the Coypright Act of 1790) and patents (under the Patent Act of 1790) to protect the rights of authors and inventors respectively. . . . Throughout the entire history of the republic, Congress has maintained this dichotomy.

The USPTO’s action also included a heavy dose of policy, asserting that “such a class of intellectual propety would actually have the effect of discouraging the progress of science and the useful arts”, and that  “storylines are not subject to improvement.  Storylines may be changed, but not improved.”  The Office Action suggests that patents on storylines would have prevented the publication of Moby Dick, which used portions of a storyline originally created by Owen Chase. 

In May 2008, the applicant filed a detailed response, and this case is likely heading for appeal some time over the next year. 

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