Prescriptivism and Patent Trolls

trollSo you may have heard about a recent, all too rare victory of common sense over a patent troll.  In this case, the troll in question was Chris Crawford, who sued 18 companies since 1992, based on a patent involving the idea of backing up PCs over the internet.  Now, naturally, Crawford hadn’t actually done any of this backing up – it was 1992, and he couldn’t figure out how to do it with the odd dial-up modem that was available.  But, being a troll, that didn’t stop him from making millions of dollars off people who actually did figure out how to do it, because he’d had this awesome idea (or, more to the point, because he’d filed a patent – obviously, thousands of people had this idea by 1992).

And it would have worked, too, if not for Carbonite, and their dog, or rather team of lawyers.  Because it turned out that it hadn’t really been Chris Crawford’s idea anyway – he’d just been the note taker at meetings of folks talking about the idea.  And of course, he hadn’t gotten around to telling all these partners that he’d been going around suing people based on their idea (and they, not being sociopaths, had not thought to patent an idea they’d never been able to successfully implement).  But Carbonite’s lawyers, in digging through all the documentation related to the patent, found a deposition from Mr. Crawford, where he talked about how the whole thing was “Jack Byrd’s idea”, which kind of put a hole in his claim to deserve money from people (or, at the very least, his claim to be the only person getting the windfall).

Now, here is where it gets language-y, because under questioning by the team of lawyers, Crawford claimed that no, he hadn’t meant it was Jack Byrd’s idea – the whole thing was because of a misplaced apostrophe.  Of course, there are a lot of people who mis-use apostrophes – there are whole websites devoted to the phenomenon (granted, there are whole websites about just about everything, and, by Rule 34, porn websites about just about everything, and no, I will not be linking to apostrophe porn.  Pervert).  Anyway, my point is that it would be no surprise that Crawford wouldn’t know how to use an apostrophe to represent the possessive.  But of course the question is what on earth could he have meant, in theory?  Something to do with multiple Jack Byrds?  Did he mean to not have the “s” there at all?  There is literally no other interpretation that makes sense, as far as I can tell.  Crawford took a desperate refuge in strict prescriptivism by saying that if the apostrophe was misplaced then the whole sentence must collapse into inadmissible nonsense.  But in this case, a more descriptivist approach, that whether the apostrophe was placed correctly or not we all know what he meant, won the day.  Though one can’t really be hard on prescriptivism in this case, because let’s face it, the apostrophe was right where it was supposed to be.

~ by smwilliams on June 27, 2013.