Patent Law Fun & Lessons: What Dilbert Teaches About Inventing

Over the last week Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has been out doing himself in a series of laugh out loud funny cartoons. I realize that as a patent attorney my sense of humor is, well… challenged, at least in the view of many who are not in the patent field. That being the case I figured I would share a few of these cartoons with an audience that I figured would be able to appreciate the humor. What is even better is that Dilbert cartoons can be embedded into a blog or website for free, so no copyright infringement was engaged in during the creation or publication of this post.  Which is always nice!

As you can see from the first cartoon in the series, the creator of a project has left the company and his unfinished project is being passed on to the hapless Dilbert.  Scott Adams, through Dilbert, teaches us not only that no one should ever trust Dilbert, but also about the importance of documenting your invention.  I then take this opportunity to also opinion about the impending first to invent changes to US patent laws.   What fun!

February 27, 2010

The Dilbert website allows you to create your own punchline to the comics, so I took the liberty of making this one a little more patent friendly, and hopefully patent funny, by changing the last frame to Dilbert saying: “A glowing box comprising a box that glows. Done. How was that for speed? Lets file a provisional.” See my altered version at Dilbert Mashup by PatentPundit. Right now there are only 3 votes and it is only getting 3.5 stars.  Pretty pathetic given that I voted for myself, and since I find myself amusing I gave it 5 stars.  Perhaps with some patent attorney and patent agent votes it will get higher marks!

In any event, at the time I wrote the altered final frame I had no idea where the story would go, or even if it would go more than just one strip, although it seemed like a fair bet.  Then over the last few days the plot thickens with an invention gone horribly wrong, at least from Asok’s point of view.

March 1, 2010

March 2, 2010

March 3, 2010

I think the March 2nd strip is absolutely hilarious. I am not to keen on the March 3rd strip though. The first two, however, really tell a story that is so important to tell. Document your inventions!

The dangers of not documenting an invention probably won’t ever turn out quite as bad for you or others as this seems to have turned out for Asok. Nevertheless, this is a problem that I, and I suspect all other patent attorneys and agents, face on a routine basis. Overwhelmingly I work in the software and computer-implemented space, and documentation in this space is extremely sparse usually. Documenting what you are doing by inserting text into millions of lines of code is not exactly user friendly, and you sure don’t want to have to pay your patent attorney to read a million lines of code to figure out what is going on.

It seems that by and large the days where projects start out with flowcharts and schematic diagrams is gone, never mind a project maturing into a design document that will be the bible of the project and something that can be referred by to by those involved. This information, however, is essential if you are going to file a patent application. Sure, it can be re-created, but when documentation is lacking the entire project becomes more complicated than it needs to be, and therefore more costly. Why waste time and money re-creating the documentation? If even modest documentation is contemporaneously created more time and energy can be spent in blowing out what is already there, rather than spending time and energy figuring out what is there. Those who are inventors should read “time and energy” as MONEY! You want the patent professional to be spending time where their expertise can make the most difference and add the most value.

Another problem with lack of documentation is that it will be extremely difficult, if not completely impossible, to produce the required evidence to demonstrate that you were the first to invent, should that ever be necessary. Much heated debate has gone on over whether the patent reform bill should shift the US from a first inventor system to a first inventor to file system. What is lost in the debate frequently is the reality that most inventors simply do not have the evidence available to prove they were the first to invent because of inadequate documentation. On top of that, just because it proves to you that you engaged in activities doesn’t mean that it will prove that to a court or the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences. Many successful inventors have learned that lesson over the years. In fact this happened to Gordon Gould, who is widely credited as being the inventor of the laser. He was unable to obtain an early patent because he didn’t have the documentation to demonstrate he was the first to invent, although he probably was. He took off work to spend time on his invention, and could demonstrate he took off many days. What he was unable to prove, among other things, is what he did on those days. Because he incorrectly thought he needed a working prototype to file a patent application he filed later that another, and without evidence that showed what he had done and when he had done it he couldn’t prevail.

So the moral of the story, which is brought out so wonderfully by Scott Adams through these Dilbert comic strips, is that documentation is critical. Cryptic notes about a “goat head issue” are not going to cut it. Successful inventors will treat their pursuits as a business, keep appropriate records and not unnecessarily waste time (MONEY) by giving their patent attorneys or agents little or nothing useful to work with. To be sure, if the proponents of patent reform get their way this will matter less in the grand scheme of things because inventors will need to file as soon as practical and not rely on the pipe dream of being the first to invent, which almost never actually leads to the true first inventor being the one who is awarded a patent anyway.


Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author as of the time of publication and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of Read more.

Join the Discussion

9 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Gene Quinn]
    Gene Quinn
    March 4, 2010 02:09 pm

    One more thought…

    You are incorrectly focusing on first to invent status. Before you ever get to the Board you need to have a patent application. So it is nice that you can demonstrate first to invent status, which will be irrelevant once patent reform is enacted. But establishing first to invent doesn’t help you with the patent application. While code can be submitted that is no substitute for a written description, flowcharts, schematics and claims, which are all necessary for a patent application.


  • [Avatar for Gene Quinn]
    Gene Quinn
    March 4, 2010 02:07 pm


    I didn’t mean to suggest that documenting in the code is bad. That should be done in my humble opinion. Having said that, if that is the only documentation you have then it will be extraordinarily expensive to patent the innovation. You don’t want to pay a patent attorney to go through a million lines of code to figure out what the invention is.

    You do put your finger on a major problem in the patent world. Companies complain all the time about the expense of getting patents but never want to force their employees to do even small things that would make the entire process more economical. They would rather complain about attorneys fees and pay $250 to $500 an hour or more for an attorney to do what a programmer could do for about $20 to $50 per hour. Not exactly the most business clever thing to do, but many companies do exactly that.

    So you can certainly document in the code, and should, but if that is the only documentation you have then expect software patents to cost an arm and a leg.


  • [Avatar for Patrick Rafter]
    Patrick Rafter
    March 4, 2010 11:50 am

    Patrick from Article One Partners here again.
    That was a very funny post!
    We’ll link to it and retweet.
    Hope you know that is at the very top of our Blog Roll on
    our new blog:
    Keep the great posts coming.
    –Patrick (Rafter)
    Article One Partners– The World’s Largest Patent Validation Firm
    p.s Don’t send any inventors to Dilbert & Dilbert LLC for their patent filings.

  • [Avatar for AntiEntropist]
    March 4, 2010 11:29 am

    “Documenting what you are doing by inserting text into millions of lines of code is not exactly user friendly”

    And why not? The reason why programmers do this is because the computer program itself is the context of the implementation of the software invention or task. Programmers instinctively know that write-once-read-many must prevail or they will be chasing down stale textual descriptions forever. Unfortunately, software project managers have always forced redundant description techniques as an additional duty on the lowly progammer.

    The answer for me has always been good variable names, and dated and writer-stamped comments throughout the code which on demand can be transformed (not rewritten) to a form that looks like prose. Couple this with any software configuration management system, and you have a perfect and natural record that any programmer can take to a court or Board of Patent Appeals to establish first-to-invent status.

  • [Avatar for Tarun]
    March 4, 2010 07:30 am

    Ha Ha Gene….This is really cool…

    u made my day 🙂

    I specially liked Alice head…. It seems like a grass pile. And if Asok goat head had not been changed into dolphin’s……I am sure it might have chewed the grass from Alice’s head.

    ha ha …really cool and informative…Thanks

  • [Avatar for Gene Quinn]
    Gene Quinn
    March 3, 2010 08:30 pm


    OMG!!!! I wish I had thought of the “feature” not a defect line!

    Tip of the hat to you! That was brilliant! I also love the “ROFLMGHO.” Pretty easy to amuse us patent types!


  • [Avatar for step back]
    step back
    March 3, 2010 05:33 pm

    We all needed a head change today. This did the trick.

    p.s. If Dilbert were smart enough to call Gates in on the problem he would have learned that the Goat Head thingy is a “feature”, not a defect.

    ROFLMGHO (rolling on floor laughing my goat head off)

  • [Avatar for Chris Jagalla]
    Chris Jagalla
    March 3, 2010 04:56 pm

    I love the way you tied humor to a very important point. If doing a senior project in college taught me anything (well, it actually taught me a lot, but anyway), it’s that documentation such as engineering logbooks are important and to be taken seriously.

    Who doesn’t love writing in a Moleskine, anyway?

  • [Avatar for EG]
    March 3, 2010 03:46 pm


    Great post, I did come close to falling over laughing. Humor is important, including in the patent world