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June 14, 2011
Misuse of Dictionaries in Patent (and Other) Decisions
Apparently it's WTF month here at Copyfight. Another one that has me scratching my head: a story in the NY Times describing the increasing frequency with which dictionaries are being cited as reference materials
in judicial decisions.
The article author, Adam Liptak, reports that the dictionary authors themselves are puzzled that the Justices seem to need to be sure what words like "prevent", "delay", and even "of" are supposed to mean.
“I think that it’s probably wrong, in almost all situations, to use a dictionary in the courtroom,” said Jesse Sheidlower, the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. “Dictionary definitions are written with a lot of things in mind, but rigorously circumscribing the exact meanings and connotations of terms is not usually one of them.”
Although the article was prompted by the repeated citations of dictionaries in a patent case, the problem seems rife in SCOTUS rulings. Liptak also notes that Justice Breyer criticized Chief Justice Roberts for resorting to dictionary definitions in an illegal-hiring case.
I find myself wondering - do the Justices really not know these words? Do they think Congress intended some specific meaning for these words that can be intuited from dictionaries? Are they comparing dictionary definitions of words with the (admittedly specialized and often obscure) words used in patent applications? And to echo Sheidlower's point - do they not realize that dictionaries don't set rules for word use - that went out shortly after Daniel Webster died. Rather, a modern dictionary attempts to capture how words are used and meanings assigned to them by the population the dictionary samples and addresses.
I wonder what they'd make of Urban Dictionary.
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