I don’t think any readers of this blog have been living in a cave for the last 25+ years, but if you have, one of the most popular comic strips in the USA is Dilbert, written by Scott Adams. The strip usually depicts life (if it can be called that) as a software engineer in a large company.
This week, one of the characters – ok, THE laziest character – Wally, says something that results in a product that makes lots of money for the company and a likely promotion for Wally. You can see the strips here, here, here and here.
Being a patent attorney, I couldn’t but help find interesting (after my laughter subsided) the fact that Wally gets credit for inventing something, even though it’s clear that it was Dilbert who came up with the idea (conception), and built the prototype (actual reduction to practice). Legally, the fact that it was Wally’s comments that inspired Dilbert are of no import: it was Dilbert who saw how two “problems” could in fact be mutual solutions for each other, and who conceived of a way to implement those mutual solutions. So Dilbert is the inventor here, and Wally isn’t. But from the get-go, Dilbert gives Wally credit, which Wally is more than happy to take.
That the strip would play out this way suggests that for all his brilliance as a comic strip writer, and, presumably, as someone who knows something about copyright (Mr. Adams has a very nice sized bank account thanks to syndication and royalties from the Dilbert strip and related books, mugs, etc.; the Dilbert site itself allows you to buy rights to reproduce individual comic strips in certain contexts), Mr. Adams has a poorer understanding of patent law. Or maybe, giving him the benefit of the doubt, he just understands common misperceptions about patent law, and puts those misperceptions into Dilbert’s world. Either way, it’s clear that people who live with inventors and patents day in and day out could be doing a better job teaching people not involved in this area how patents work and why they’re important.
Since the Dilbert strip can’t leave us hanging with the possibility of a promotion for Wally, there’s going to be at least one more installment in this story, and I envision two possible outcomes. One is that the company gets hit with a product liability suit and drops the product. The other is that the company didn’t bother filing a patent application and gets driven from the market by a cheap knock-off from Elbonia. One way or another, Wally’s promotion vaporizes.