Earlier today National Public Radio did a brief segment on Morning Edition regarding Michael Jackson the Inventor and the unique patent that covered the creation of an anti-gravity illusion. Morning Edition contacted me yesterday for a brief interview, a portion of which was used in the story this morning on air. Click to Listen (about 1:20). Last week I also spoke with USA Today reporter Dan Vergano, who also wrote an article regarding the Michael Jackson patent, which now might be the most famous patent in the world given all the publicity that seems to be surrounding Jackson-mania. It seems that there is tremendous interest in anything and everything related to Michael Jackson, which speaks volumes about many things. He was certainly an eclectic individual, with a variety of interests. He was creative on many levels, most famously with respect to his music, but he continued to press the envelope with respect to choreography, which is also copyrightable, which seems to have lead to him becoming an inventor.
Today is the Jackson memorial in Los Angeles, California, so there will undoubtedly be a lot more interest through today, and then no doubt in the weeks and months to come as his estate unwinds and toxicology reports come out. As I sat watching Bill O’Reilly last night talk about the coverage of Jackson’s death, and his perception that the media are exalting the individual rather than his accomplishments, I wondered if I had done that myself. I don’t think I have, but it is certainly clear to anyone watching that Michael Jackson lead a troubled life, he had great failings, some of which are inexcusable if true. Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the interest generated by his death, and it is impossible to ignore the role he played in pop-culture, particularly during the 1980s, which were my formative years. With that in mind, I do think it appropriate from time to time to write about his impact on the entertainment industry, some of his business accomplishments and to also use some well known aspects of Michael Jackson’s career to explain various intellectual property topics now that many casually interested in this little niche are clamoring for as much MJ information as possible. I do not, however, want to exalt the individual or glorify his, shall we say eccentricities.
What seems to interest many in the media is not only Michael Jackson’s patent, but that I have used his patent to teach. Those familiar with my teaching style know that I use various memorable and identifiable patents, songs and videos to teach patent and copyright law. My feeling is that if it is interesting you have a much better chance to get students to read the material, and very little learning can really be accomplished without student cooperation and at least some reading. So I use obscure patents frequently, because like all other patents they are supposed to satisfy the patentability requirements, and have basically the same pieces and parts as any patent application.
I have never made a big deal of Michael Jackson the inventor, choosing rather to discuss this patent as more of a magicians trick, but that will admittedly be impossible moving forward given the overwhelming interest in the patent. The reason I have used this patent is because it demonstrates in easily understandable terms quite a number of core concepts. First, and perhaps most importantly, a patent needs to describe an invention without overselling the invention. In this particular situation Jackson explained that the invention created an anti-gravity illusion and, therefore, the described invention needed to provide the illusion that gravity has been defied. Had the patent claimed a gravity defying device, then what the patent described would have had to defy the law of gravity first appreciated by Sir Isaac Newton, or perhaps be akin to the boots worn by the Federation assassins in Star Trek VI when they boarded the Klingon vessel to kill the Klingon Ambassador. But because the patent was on an illusion, the question is whether the invention is actually capable of providing the illusion, which it certainly was.
Another interesting aspect of the patent is that a device for creating an illusion can be patented. There are a great many things in the United States that can be patented, including devices that create an illusion, amusement devices, games and methods of playing games and much more. The threshold inquiries in determining whether you have an invention that can be patented are: (1) does the invention possess patentable subject matter; and (2) is the invention useful. There are other inquiries, but to determine whether an invention is even entitled to receive patent protection we start with these two, before determining whether the invention is new and not obvious. But there is no reason why something that relates purely to entertainment cannot be patented. After all, who could argue about the usefulness of something that provides enjoyment, entertainment and intrigue, particularly given the economic times we live in where a little diversion could go a long way.
In the patentable subject matter department, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that “anything made by man under the sun” is potentially patentable, which picks up on the legislative history of the 1952 Patent Act, the last major reworking of US patent laws. This has lead to a lot of controversy, such as caused by the patenting of genes, software patents, business method patents and the patenting of living mater, but those thorny issues can keep for another day.
So is Michael Jackson’s patent useful? Under the patent laws it certainly is useful because it allows for him to accomplish a defined goal, namely the creating of an illusion. By clamping his feet to the stage he effectively changes his center of gravity, which then allows him to lean forward much further than he should be able to without falling flat on his face. So for those who are familiar with basic physics and/or falling down, you realize that something is amiss and you start looking for the wires, not realizing he has anchored himself to the stage.