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Nutters.org The Nutter Log
Attack of the Patent Zombies Entry id: patent-zombie
By The Famous Brett Watson
On Sat, 05 Nov 2005 16:39:49 +0000

You can copyright a specific story, but can you patent a general plot? Well, that depends on patent law, of course. In the USA the trend has been ever greater expansion of the kinds of things which can be patented, and now some wag has decided to have a go at patenting a storyline. Groklaw has a none-too-pleased commentary on this patent application.

The rationale behind this patent provides a tragicomic insight into modern business mentality. Key sentences occur at the end of paragraph 0012 and the start of paragraph 0013 of the patent, as follows.

Unless patents on artistic inventions are upheld and enforceable, the great artistic minds of the day will be compelled to continue composing predictable love songs for pop stars and slightly altered dialogues for carbon copied movie plots. [0013] There is currently little motivation for artistic inventors to innovate new plots, themes, and methods of expression.

I find that terribly funny. It's even funner that the author appears to be in earnest about it. What's less funny is my suspicion that most westerners would consider this a reasonable suggestion. As a culture, we are really sold on the concept of "intellectual property", and the more intangible concepts we cover under such law, the better, apparently. Personally, I'm of the view that all law is like medicine, and the more law we have, the sicker the society must be to need it.

Anyhow, here's a free clue for Andrew Knight, the brains behind this patent. The lack of genuine innovation in art has two major roots, in my opinion, and neither of them have anything to do with patents. First up, to be genuinely innovative takes vast reserves of raw, unbridled talent. It doesn't matter how much money you throw at me, for example, if you want innovative music: I'm just not sufficiently talented a composer. Talent is born, not bought.

Problem number two is that the marketplace tends to prefer the familiar old mediocre tat (or slight variations on it), whether it's food, music, literature, or whatever else. There's precious little demand for innovation. It's not that the producers of bland modern pop music, trashy romance novels and corny action movies are forced into this situation: by and large they're just meeting market demand — selling where the buyers are. Patents on art aren't going to change the shape of demand.

Genuine artistic innovators tend to be wildly eccentric. It's almost a necessary trait for the job: you aren't going to be artistically innovative by seeing the world the same way that everyone else does. They also tend to be compulsively artistic, producing their art whether or not anyone else wants to see it — which is just as well, given the marketplace preference for conservative sameness. With any luck, those who really appreciate the work find it sooner or later, and preserve it.

That's not to say that this idea of patenting storylines won't take off — I'm just predicting that it won't produce a cultural renaissance if it does. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that it will produce an increase in work for patent agents and lawyers, and probably create a niche market for storyline speculators who patent every storyline they can think of, then send infringement notices to publishers in the hope of extracting license fees. Or, to put it another way, I'm sure it will be a boon to those with naturally parasitic tendencies.

The storyline that Mr Knight wishes to patent is summarised as follows in his press release.

The fictitious story, which Knight dubs “The Zombie Stare,” tells of an ambitious high school senior, consumed by anticipation of college admission, who prays one night to remain unconscious until receiving his MIT admissions letter. He consciously awakes 30 years later when he finally receives the letter, lost in the mail for so many years, and discovers that, to all external observers, he has lived an apparently normal life. He desperately seeks to regain 30 years’ worth of memories lost as an unconscious philosophical zombie.

In addition to poking at his "storyline patents" idea, I'd now like to pick on his plot. Specifically, I'd like to point out that he's completely abusing the notion of "philosophical zombie" here. Be aware that in philosophy zombies aren't undead humans with a craving for fresh braaaaaainssss; instead, they are genuinely living things that do not have any subjective conscious experience. Think of them as robots, capable of behaving in a complex manner — perhaps so complex that they can perfectly imitate a human being. But what they lack is an "inner life"; a "soul".

One of the odd things about the subjective conscious experience is that it's entirely personal. You can't tell whether someone else has conscious experience in the way that you do (assuming you do!) or not. This is an important factor in Mr Knight's plot, because none of the external observers are aware that anything has changed when the central character becomes a zombie. It's as though he's been replaced by an exact artificial copy of himself.

But here comes a major plot-hole. When the student "wakes up" again from this zombie state, there's no reason he should suddenly suffer memory loss. Indeed, if he does suffer memory loss, then the whole process becomes completely indistinguishable from ordinary amnesia: the "philosophical zombie" angle becomes superfluous. It's not a story about a zombie: it's a story about an amnesiac trying to piece together his forgotten past — a plot that's been done many times before.

So what if we fix that plot-hole and ditch the amnesia part? What can we really expect to happen when our zombie awakens? Well, the transition from conscious being to zombie results in no external evidence of change: it's like the subject is replaced with a perfect artificial replica, and the real subject becomes unconscious. When the reverse transition happens, it's like the replica is replaced by the original subject again, but the subject is updated with all the memories and other changed physical attributes of the replica so as to make the transition smooth.

Unfortunately, there's nothing in this change that would tip off anyone — even the subject — that a zombie substitute was in place. When the subject "wakes up", he retains all the memories accumulated in the zombie state, and doesn't realise that he never really "experienced" those things. His zombie-self went about its daily routine, behaved in the way he would have behaved, and accumulated the memories and other physical changes he would have accumulated. There is, in point of fact, meant to be no physical evidence of the zombie event.

So the story goes that the guy receives his letter thirty years late, suddenly "wakes up", completely fails to notice that he's been a zombie for the past thirty years, and goes about business as usual. Not much entertainment potential there.

But we can salvage this story without compromising our philosophy. Let's say that when he receives his letter, he suddenly remembers his prayer that he should remain unconscious until he receives it. His initial reaction is amusement over his youthful immaturity and impatience. He thinks to himself that it's just as well that his prayer wasn't granted, given the thirty year delay.

But then our protagonist has a nasty thought: what if the prayer were granted? What if he'd been unconscious all that time? But no — he remembers it, so he can't have been asleep. But it wasn't about sleep, it was about consciousness. He knows he's conscious right here and now — now that he's holding the letter — but how can he be sure that he has had any kind of genuine conscious existence for the last thirty years? Was he a zombie, or not?

He goes nuts trying to figure it out, because every time he thinks he's found the answer, he realises that the evidence is equivocal, and proves nothing. I leave the conclusion unspecified: perhaps he goes insane and kills himself; perhaps he overcomes his existential crisis by deciding to live for the moment, since the moment is all he can be sure of; perhaps he decides to get a graduate diploma in philosophy and start a philosophy-themed blog.

If you find the "philosophical zombie" idea interesting, you may also be interested in a mental disorder called Capgras delusion — look it up. Oh, and if anyone wants to make a movie or a book out of my non-amnesia variant of Mr Knight's story, I have no plans to patent it. The lack of an amnesia element makes it distinctly different from his patented storyline, but that's my opinion and not legal advice. I think you should name the main character "Andrew Knight" in any case.

Public Domain: the author waives copyright on this log entry. Other sources (if any) are quoted with permission or on the principle of "fair dealing" and retain their original copyrights.