Samuel Slater disguised himself when he came to Rhode Island because leaving the country meant breaking the law, becoming an intellectual property pirate; the crown, seeking to protect English industrial supremacy, restricted the ability of skilled craftsmen like Slater to leave the country. The patent system was originally designed to help people make money from an idea without forcing them to keep it secret like the formula for Coke or the blueprints for the eighteenth century spinning mill. But patents were designed for actual mechanical devices and chemical formulae; simple ideas were never supposed to have the same level of protection. Ideas are a dime a dozen; if the great Theda Bara had been allowed to sue Myrna Loy for stealing her trailblazing "vamp" persona, Loy’s career might never have gotten off the ground (and today almost all of Bara’s hugely popular films, including her Cleopatra, are lost). If Moxie had been able to tie up the idea of sweet, fizzy drinks, the soft drink ecologoy would never have flourished in the New World. And if one person — even if that person was a litigation-prone mercenary looking for trouble in Afghanistan — could have exclusive rights to stories about nuclear terrorists being thwarted by cocky Green Berets who never played by the rules, late-night cable would be a lot more barren. But millions of dollars can be made from ideas, so it’s not surprising that people try to cash in. Small software developers who feel (rightly or wrongly) that Apple Computer, which arguably stole the rudiments of modern mouse-and-windows computers from Xerox, has bullied into their territory, often wonder what can be done about it; can their breathtakingly clever idea be patented? It shouldn’t be, but ever since the Lotus "look and feel" case, which established that copyright alone couldn’t protect the way a piece of software operated, companies have been trying. The gates were unlocked when the Supreme Court ruled that business methods could be patented, it’s been open season. Crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and using a laser pointer to entertain your cat are now patented with the full weight and majesty of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Is there a better way? A small band of entertainers in England came up with one in the 1940s; to ensure that they didn’t violate anyone else’s intellectual property, they created a voluntary central repository that newcomers to the industry could search and which could settle disputes over precedent. The Clown Repository paints portraits on goose eggs to ensure that no two clowns look alike. Details of the Repository’s enforcement mechanisms are sketchy, but surely restraining orders and million-dollar lawsuits are as nothing compared to the threat of a pie in the face and the tears of a clown.