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Doctor Who (IP – Hit or Miss?)

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I say old chap. You haven’t seen my sonic screwdriver, have you?

Does The Doctor know his IP from his elbow?

Incidentally, just in case you’re wondering, there is an (admittedly tenuous) intellectual property (IP) connection to this story!

In the episode in question, Silence in the Library (trailer below), the Doctor and Donna are summoned to a planet sized library, The Library, via a message received on the Doctor’s psychic paper where they encounter a team of explorers led by Professor Song and funded by Mr Lux. The Doctor and Donna are encouraged to sign non-disclosure agreements upon encountering the team in order to ensure that their “individual experiences inside the Library are the intellectual property of the Felman Lux Corporation.”

It turns out that The Library has been deserted for 100 years following some kind of incident in which all the occupants of the Library disappeared. When things predictably start to go south the Doctor gets annoyed with Lux and declares “Mr Lux, right now, you’re in more danger than you’ve ever been in your whole life. And you’re protecting a patent?”

Just what does the Doctor mean by his reference to “protecting a patent”? Does it make sense from an IP context? Is it an IP hit or miss? And, am I over-thinking my Saturday night telly?

Perhaps The Doctor is suggesting that Mr Lux is trying to control access to the Library to avoid them finding out the details of some invention that is contained within the Library that is covered by a patent?

Well, probably not.

It is important that patent applications are filed before any disclosure of the invention takes place. This is because patent applications are assessed against any non-confidential information made available to any member of the public, in any way, anywhere in the world, at any time before the priority date of the invention (the priority date being date of filing of the first patent application for the invention). Therefore, if you tell the world about your invention you’ve generally scuppered your chances to apply for and get a patent (with the possible exception of the US, see reference to grace period here).

Given that the Library was in public use 100 years ago it is likely that the Felman Lux corporation ensured that they filed their patent applications before the Library opened to make sure that their patent applications were filed before any disclosures took place. If this is the case then any such patents have likely long since expired within the context of this story (patents generally last for 20 years from filing, subject to renewal fees that are paid, generally annually, to keep the patent in force). There is therefore no patent to protect.

What if it’s taken the Felman Lux corporation a while to get round to filing their patent applications? (Risky, because of the disclosure issue above, but anyway run with me here. We’re already talking about planet sized libraries and psychic paper!).  Could Mr Lux just be protecting a patent that he has filed more recently that’s still pending or still in force?

Again, probably not. You see patent applications generally publish eighteen months after their earliest date of filing (18 months from the priority date). This is termed the ‘A’ publication. The publication number for such a publication is followed by the letter ‘A’, e.g. EP1234567A. Once a patent application is granted, it is published for a second time. This is termed the ‘B’ publication as the publication number now ends in the letter ‘B’, e.g. EP1234567B. The ‘B’ publication reflects any amendments made to the patent during the application process.

So, any patent that Mr Lux has filed relating to an invention within the Library has probably already published (I’m assuming it takes a while to organise an expedition of this nature, more than 18 months at any rate). Therefore, the Doctor’s comment doesn’t make much sense again.

So, it seems the Doctor may have stumbled in his IP reference. Maybe we can cut him a bit of slack as he was dealing with the fact that they were all in mortal danger and was probably a little pre-occupied.

Of course, the alternative explanation is that the Doctor is right and (to misquote the 11th Doctor): “It’s the 51st Century. IP Law has moved on.”

Verdict: IP miss*

*Based on 21st century IP law.

This article is part of an occasional series of articles that takes a light-hearted look at IP as it appears in the media (films, TV, news reports etc) as an excuse to talk about different IP topics. A vague rating of “IP hit or miss?” may also be given depending on how well the particular IP concept has been incorporated into the media in question.


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