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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Patent Lie

Paul Goldstein is a distinguished intellectual property scholar and author of both Copyright’s Highway, perhaps the best layman’s introduction to copyright law there is, and Goldstein on Copyright, one of the essential treatises for copyright experts. He’s also a mad prolific casebook author, and, if you believe the wrong sources, a crackerjack tennis player. But did you know he’s also a mystery novelist?

In fact, he writes—get this—intellectual property thrillers. His first novel, Errors and Omissions, managed to make Copyright Office paperwork the stuff of high drama. I enjoy a good murder mystery thriller as much as the next guy, but reading one in which my own area of the law plays such a prominent role is a special treat. In Errors and Omissions, New York City litigator Michael Seeley’s personal and professional lives are close to bottoming out when he reluctantly accepts an offer to go to Los Angeles and make some easy money certifiying the chain of title in the copyrights for a blockbuster movie series. As Seeley discovers, however, there’s something off about the sequence of assignments, and someone is more than willing to kill to clear up any clouds on the title.

Well, Michael Seeley is back, and the title of A Patent Lie tells you we’re not in copyright country anymore. (May I suggest “Naked License” as the title of the inevitable trademark thriller to follow?) Seeley has retreated to his hometown of Buffalo to lick his wounds; he’s calmly, if not happily, scratching out a two-bit practice when his estranged brother Leonard walks in the door with an offer Michael ultimately can’t refuse. Leonard’s biotech startup is suing a multinational Big Pharm for patent infringement on a potential blockbuster AIDS drug, the trial counsel has just jumped in front of a train, and someone needs to take his place. Once Michael arrives in San Francisco, however, he finds that nothing is right about this patent infringement case. He’ll need to deal with a second chair who seems to be trying to undermine his case, a client who won’t tell him key facts, an unlikely pretrial stipulation of priority, and, quite possibly, a murderer on the loose. How Seeley fits the pieces of the puzzle together is only half as interesting as how this seasoned litigator starts digging his way out of the hole he’s landed in.

A Patent Lie is not a perfect book. I generally like my mysteries to have at least two major conspiracies to disentangle; part of the fun is trying to figure which crimes and clues go with each other. A Patent Lie, however, has only one, quite large conspiracy, and while some of the conspirators are working at cross purposes, all of the secrets and doublecrosses flow ultimately from that single source. (Errors and Omissions was this way, too, but Goldstein did better there at keeping a few absolutely crucial details of it from the reader until the final chapters.) There’s also so much trial time that I never got much of a sense that Seeley was in serious danger. But on the whole—and especially if you’re an IP type—A Patent Lieis a great read. In addition to the cleverly handled trial at the center of the book and the remarkably cynical scheme behind it, it also conveys a wonderfully rich sense of melancholy. This is a novel about broken families, failed dreams, and the lawyer’s virtue of always, always soldiering on.

Posted by James Grimmelmann on August 5, 2008 at 08:32 AM in Books | Permalink


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I'm about 3/4 A Patent Lie now, and only grudgingly took it up, because I had a willful suspension of belief issue when reading Errors and Omissions. This may have to do with the fact that Paul Goldstein was my property and RE transactions prof thirty years ago. Hence, any scene ever remotely evoking sex is a little weird to get my thoughts around. (Paul, if you read this, I'm thrilled for your success. Take what follows as constructive criticism.)

I this book is a lot better than the first one, but his pacing as a mystery writer still needs a lot of work. The character Seeley is good, as are many of the vignettes, and the patent issues, I can tell you, are very real, but I think Paul confuses the third person internal within Seeley's character with an obligation to tell the reader everything Seeley is thinking, thus reducing the mystery impact. Compare LeCarre's masterful third person internal within George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor. You have access to Smiley's thoughts but he doesn't reveal to you how he's unraveled the knot, even though he probably has it figured out a hundred pages before he gives it up.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Aug 5, 2008 2:38:32 PM

It's also in "Copyright's Highway" -- which is full of great anecdotes, by the way. I particularly like the blow-by-blow of the oral argument in Williams & Wilkins v. U.S.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Aug 5, 2008 12:01:03 PM

Bruce: That's brilliant -- you should get a copyright on that idea!

"Well, anyway, as a patent lawyer, you can copyright a name for me, can't you?"

(That's Goldstein, in the introduction to his IP casebook, quoting Alan Latman, quoting an unnamed lawyer.)

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Aug 5, 2008 11:24:08 AM

"May I suggest 'Naked License' as the title of the inevitable trademark thriller to follow?" That's brilliant -- you should get a copyright on that idea!

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Aug 5, 2008 11:16:33 AM

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