Wednesday, September 22, 2010
If the inventory of ready-made words in our language determines which concepts you are able to understand, how would you ever learn anything new? -- Guy Deutscher, Honorary Research Fellow, School of Languages, Linguistics, and Cultures at the University of Manchester.
This quote in a recent New York Times Magazine distills both the challenge and the triumph of a patent. The ability, in a single sentence, to stake a claim to an invention and define the boundaries of what is yours. Then to use that single sentence as the framework to describe how to make or use it your invention. A single sentence to describe something novel. The choice of words, their structure, and the links to the instructions in your specification will all determine if you have an invention that will generate revenue or an invention that will have a nice certificate that you can hang in your office. This unique language and vocabulary and the structure and flow of innovations, inventions and patents is the Patent Argot - the special and secret language of patents and inventions.
For many, the Patent Argot vocabulary of patents is an impenetrable wall between business owners and entrepreneurs and understanding which patents are relevant to your business and which are not. It is the Patent Argot is what keeps you from finding things. It is part of why you are never sure if your freedom to operate report has really covered all the subject matter. It's what drives that strange feeling you get when you've read a patent and you say to yourself, I read English and I have no idea what this thing says.
An argot is, "a specialized idiomatic vocabulary that is peculiar to a particular class of people (the Intellectual Property and Patent Cognoscenti.) One dictionary defines it as a special language, especially that of an underworld group, devised for private communication and identification; a language with its own style, grammar, and vocabulary. While the underworld group aspect of the definition might resonate with anyone who's ever received a Cease and Desist letter, Patent Argot is a salient feature of almost any patent you read (or write.)
Inventions have always created new vocabulary. The Patent Office allows inventors to be their on lexicographer - to create their own dictionary of specific terms that can be used to describe their inventions as long as the definitions of these words are "accurate, complete, unambiguous, and concise" - a tall order.
Creating new words to describe inventions has been around for as long as man has been inventing things. In the 1500s, Leonardo Da Vinci created his own inventive argot. His first flying machine was defined as the "ornithopter" - ornithos for bird and pteron for wing. (The Notebooks of Da Vinci may provide insightful prior art.) In 1863 Ponton D'Amecourt invented the term helicopter to define his flying machine - "helico" spiral - "pter" for wings. The contemporary spin is the VTOL - the Vertical Take Off and Landing vehicle.
Another important feature of the Patent Argot is the desire to craft language that is as broad as possible so that your patent can reach into the future to cover things not yet invented. Fuzzy boundaries on an invention that can be defined in context help a patent be more flexible. It is a language that uses today's vocabulary in the broadest possible way to compensate for a future we cannot foresee at the moment a claim is crafted.
It is why we have Portable Law Enforcement Data Processing Devices (handheld parking ticket issuing devices) or make purchases on Amazon.com or the iTunes Store using a single action ordering system. It's also why you need to look for new ways to search so you can bypass the Patent Argot and use a framework that understands that nutriceuticals are dietary or nutritional supplements or that a toaster is also a heating element with a timer without you having to tell it so. (Shameless plug for Coronado IP.)
In the Patent Argot posts we'll explore the impact of the secret language of patents and how understanding it will help you understand the secret world of patents and of course, help you Search The Way You Think.