Friday, November 01, 2013

Structural ambiguity and the law

Mark Liberman at Language Log covers a US Supreme Court case that may hinge on the interpretation of this part of a statute:
Except as otherwise provided in this title, whoever without authority makes, uses, offers to sell, or sells any patented invention, within the United States or imports into the United States any patented invention during the term of the patent therefor, infringes the patent.
They have a good short summary, and the discussion in the comments is worth a look too.

Nobody points out the obvious starting point, though (the comment from 'ohwilleke' comes closest): the text is structurally ambiguous, the scope relations are underdetermined by what is written, so the court will have to make a decision. Or rather, they will have to make at least two connected decisions: first, what criteria to apply (intent of executive or legislature; or the most accessible or salient or relevant disambiguation, now or when the law was promulgated; or something else) and second, what their chosen criterion or criteria imply.

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