Dictionary of Common Patent Term Usage

Justin E. Gray proposes a Dictionary of Common Patent Term Usage for use in legal wrangling where the plaintiff and defendant disagree on the meaning of a word and each credit their own preferred dictionaries as authoritative sources. He writes,

[There are no] clear guidelines for courts to use when confronted with multiple dictionary definitions for a specific term. Until changes are made to this system, “dictionary wars” will continue to escalate. […] This dictionary would be available online and would contain entries for both “general” and “technical” terms. After the first “edition” of the dictionary is created, the dictionary would be updated periodically by either special staff at the USPTO or a special editorial board.

There are four problems with this idea:

1. The Wikipedia model of editing he proposes is sure to be a failure, as it is inherently inefficient and prone to abuse.

2. A dictionary for patent cases would need to define many thousands of terms, since patents can, conceivably, cover just about anything. I suspect Gray hasn’t a good understanding of the work required to undertake a brand-new dictionary project of that size, though I suppose content could be licensed from existing dictionaries and then revised.

3. The dictionary might be misunderstood to represent “official” English and come to be considered the one true source even outside of the courtroom. Official English dictionaries do not exist, and should not exist, as the multiplicity of dictionaries we currently have together cover a broader base than any one work does or can.

4. Dictionaries are prone to error, there is no such thing as a perfect dictionary, and one is never enough. My colleagues and I repeat this to little avail: always check at least two from different publishers. Newspapers which have standardized on a single dictionary are locked into the failings and weaknesses of that particular work—as the courts would be locked into the faults of a Dictionary of Common Patent Term Usage. I envision lawsuits over its revisions.

Posted May 18, 2007

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