Writing question du jour

I’m trying to think of the legal term for stealing someone else’s unpublished ideas, specifically in a science context, but the same term probably applies generally. I don’t think the term is “plagarism”, because that’s really about stealing actual text as well as the ideas themselves.

18 thoughts on “Writing question du jour

  1. You’d have to be more specific. Patent law gets very complicated, especially in the realm of intellectual property in science. The US Patent and Trademark Office may have what you need. If you can prove you are first inventor and meet the requirements for obtaining a patent, you could accuse them of theft of intellectual property and institute interference proceedings.

  2. The student is most likely SOL.
    Per the US Patent and Trademark Office:
    Interpretations of the statute by the courts have defined the limits of the field of subject matter that can be patented, thus it has been held that the laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas are not patentable subject matter.
    A patent cannot be obtained upon a mere idea or suggestion. The patent is granted upon the new machine, manufacture, etc., as has been said, and not upon the idea or suggestion of the new machine. A complete description of the actual machine or other subject matter for which a patent is sought is required.

  3. That’s plagiarism and also violates the professor’s obligation to the student, but unfortunately hard to prove and not uncommon, I think. Very sad.

  4. Well, luckily for me, it’s fictional, and the student just has to *think* she has a legal case, even if she doesn’t, so whatever term I use for it doesn’t actually have to be a legitimate legal term for the situation, as long as she thinks it is.
    One of the benefits of the unreliable narrator….

  5. This is common, people that are unfamiliar with copyright and patent law (which is most everyone) believe that “ideas” can be copyrighted or patented. They can’t.
    Here’s the test from nolo.com for a patent:
    * a process or method for producing a useful, concrete, and tangible result (such as a genetic engineering procedure, an investment strategy, computer software, or a process for conducting e-commerce on the Internet)
    * a machine (usually something with moving parts or circuitry, such as a cigarette lighter, a sewage treatment system, a laser, or a photocopier)
    * an article of manufacture (such as an eraser, a tire, a transistor, or a hand tool)
    * a composition of matter (such as a chemical composition, a drug, a soap, or a genetically altered lifeform), or
    * an improvement of an invention that fits within one of the first four categories.
    If an invention fits into one of the categories described above, it is known as “statutory subject matter” and has passed the first test in qualifying for a patent. But an inventor’s creation must overcome several additional hurdles before the USPTO will issue a patent. The invention must also:
    * have some usefulness (utility), no matter how trivial
    * be novel (that is, it must be different from all previous inventions in some important way)
    * be nonobvious (a surprising and significant development) to somebody who understands the technical field of the invention.
    What you can patent or copyright is the process or how you applied it. In other words – Fox can copyright Buffy the Vampire Slayer – the title, the character of Buffy, the characters in the show, and the way the story was told. But it can’t copyright a blond high school girl slays vampires and happens to also like to have sex with the hot ones, and pals around with a bunch of high school chums while doing it, or a blond girl falls head over heels in love with a dark broody two hundred year old vampire. So, Stephanie Meyer, et al, may have similarities to Whedon’s series but they haven’t infringed on his copyright. Or another example – while the tv series Moonlight was more or less the same idea as Angel, the idea isn’t copyrightable. There is no such thing as an original idea – ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s how we decide to convey or apply the idea that makes it unique.
    With science – same thing. Thomas Edison could patent the telegraph. He could not patent the idea of sending sound across the wires.
    Yet, here’s the deal about patents, they are trickier than copyright, in that you have got to register your patent, and have substantial proof that you came up with it first.
    Another example – the woman who invented “white out” was able to patent the chemical compound she came up with – because she registered it, she could not however patent the idea of using a chemical substance to block out unerasable text. If another company came up with a different substance that did the same thing – and worked better – they would not owe her anything and would not be stealing her invention. The reason for this – is to ensure competition, and innovation.
    If you are writing about someone who got their idea stolen and believes they have a case? I’d go with not an “idea” but an “invention” or “methodology” – which is patentable or copyrightable, but their failure to get it registered in time, put them in jeopardy. I googled this before responding and discovered an essay by a woman who had her research thesis idea stolen by another student – there was nothing she could about it.

  6. This story is already written, and I’m just polishing the text, so I can’t change the details of it now. All I need is for the character to *think* she has a case, so it can fuel her righteous anger at her advisor, who is using the student’s ideas in her research, and giving them to other students to do as projects, without giving the original student credit.

  7. From what you & everyone else have said, I think you could go with either “plagiarism” or “theft of intellectual property,” since it’s a q. of what the student thinks it is. And her anger is righteous whether she has a legal case or not!
    Oh, & in “Lobachevsky” the proof may have been written down (probably how it got from Dnepropetrovsk to Pinsk), but the issue was that it hadn’t been published: “My name in Dnepropetrovsk is cursed/When he finds out–I published first!” (That’s fair use, right? @>) ) Not that that has anything to do w/US copyright law….

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