Plagiarism and Patents

Throughout my academic career, the question of plagiarism has always been at the forefront of my mind. Many conversations have been had over the years about what constitutes an “original” idea, and what ideas are merely a result of some form of intellectual ‘mash-up’ of books read, stories heard and other intellectual conversations. It has been argued that there isn’t really any “new” ideas out there anymore, with the bombardment of media forms (etc) we are filled with external information from the get-go. When writing papers for my undergrad, a colleague and I used to discuss to what extent our paper was at all orignal (since the primary form of paper writing at that stage is synthesis writing …). Even now, my ideas are a combination of what I have read, what I have thought about and what I believe in (all influenced by some ‘external’ source or another at some point).

So, as an academic we learn the boundaries of (and ways to reference) original thought, quoted material, and speaking/writing generally about ideas that have been previously written about by multiple authors (even if their ideas are contradictory, as long as the ‘topic’ has been discussed).

All this to say – I don’t quite understand how patenting works. How can one person say they thought of something independently of everything else, and they, therefore, own it, and all of the profits that can possibly come from it? The general idea of a virtual world is of no exception. It is a vague concept – that can embody MANY types of online spaces – yet, after reading this article, I am amazed that this is even legal at all. I mean, I might have come to learn about identity through the works of many theorists, but I don’t think anyone can patent the general idea of “identity” and profit when anyone else uses the word…at least I hope not.


3 thoughts on “Plagiarism and Patents

  1. Actually, most countries’ copyright laws state that only works can be patented (the expression of an idea). Patents are usually a bit in-between: you’re protecting the rights not on the general vague idea but on a specific way to implement it. True story: I wanted to take a patent on a bottle that has two separate compartments and are measurable, which allows it to mix two liquids in pre-defined measurement chambers. I found out there had been a patent on a way to do it, with blueprints and the details on the device and how to do it technically.

    Those people you quote don’t claim to have a patent on “the concept of virtual worlds” but on the way in which those worlds work. They’re suing because WoW and every other MMO, as I heard, all use the same way of handling data, packets, connections, the client/server architecture, etc. So it’s a bit more founded than “I have a patent on breathing”, as most people make it out to be. I still don’t think it’ll work for them though, if only for the fact that they sat on their patent for 10 or so years without developing the idea commercially.

  2. I hear what you are saying – and I know its not related, but i think of things like Paris Hilton copyrighting “that’s hot” or the the phrase “let’s roll” from 9/11. Bah!

    Also, if the question is not about the idea, but the schema/blueprints for virtual worlds, wouldn’t the advancement in technology from 1995 to say, 2004 (when WoW was released) not be different enough to negate the patent based on its “technical merits” per se? Or is it a question of similarity leading to similar/same results? (which just seems terribly messy to me)

  3. Not necessarily. The underlying principle of doing things a particular way may be irrespective of technical details. It’s like if I patented my bottle as having a twin compartment, both of them adjustable by turning a screw, total capacity 2L, and a regular turning cap on both compartments. If in a few years someone comes up with the same bottle except it’s 4L and the compartments are adjustable by squeezing the bottle which readjusts a newly-discovered “solid gel” instead of the conventional screw, and you can pour the liquid using an “easy squeeze”-type mechanism instead of a regular turning cap….I’d still have a legitimate shot at claiming they’re infringing. Technology changed, but the underlying principles are the same.

    It’s really at the level of handling data. I’m no computer scientist, but I believe that it hasn’t changed a whole lot (perhaps not even one bit?) since the 1990s.

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