Sunday, August 06, 2006

South Park, the Simpsons, and copying (plagiarism)

In the "The Simpsons Already Did It" episode of South Park, Butters (as Professor Chaos) attempts to devise various evil schemes, but Disarray tells him that each one of Butters' plans has also already appeared on the series The Simpsons and is thus an unoriginal copy. Chef points out that The Simpsons have done everything, so worrying about the copying is irrelevant and further that The Simpsons had in turn stolen one of their ideas from the Twilight Zone.

The pertinent text:

Cartman: What the hell is wrong with you, Butters?

Butters: They did that on the Simpsons! Ha! Treehouse of Horror! Episode 4F02! The Genesis tub. Lisa loses a tooth, and the bacteria on it start to grow, and makes a little society, and they build a statue of her thinking she's God! Ha! Hahaha!

Cartman: [everyone is silent for a few seconds, then] ...So?

Kyle: ...Yeah. So?

Cartman: Dude, the Simpsons have done everything already. Who cares?

Stan: Yeah, and they've been on the air for like, thirteen years. Of course they've done everything.

Mr. Garrison: Every idea's been done, Butters, even before the Simpsons.

Chef: Yeah. In fact, that episode was a rip-off of a Twilight Zone episode.[IPBiz: "The Little People"]

Butters: Really? So I shouldn't care if I come up with an idea, and the Simpsons already did it. It... uh...doesn't... matter. [smiles. Everything before him is back in South Park-style] Everything is back to normal, a, I think... I think I can go back to tryin' to destroy the world again.

Chef: Good for you!

Wikipedia notes South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker made this episode to express their real life frustration of often pitching new South Park episode ideas, only to discover that the idea had already been done on The Simpsons.


In copyright law, independent creation is a valid defense to copying. In patent law, it is not. This amounts to a presumption that, in patent law, inventors are charged with published knowledge, but in copyright they are not. Thus, the text "if I come up with an idea, and the Simpsons already did it. It... uh...doesn't... matter," is accurate as to writing things, but it is not accurate as to inventing things. We'll see what the U.S. Supreme Court does in Teleflex v. KSR on obviousness, for situations wherein the "new" thing is not exactly what is written down in past things. This decision will have impact in other areas, such as the challenge to the WARF human stem cell patents by PubPat and FTCR, based on prior work on mice.

Michael Orey wrote in BusinessWeek: Microsoft attorney Culbert notes that new technology emerges all the time that isn't written about in scientific journals or other published materials, particularly in fast-developing areas such as software. Other commentators have noted that, in many fields, what gets written down is precisely what isn't obvious, guaranteeing that what the Federal Circuit Court requires won't be found. The bottom line: Rulings rejecting patents on the basis of
obviousness are rare, and massive overpatenting continues to be a thriving


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