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Jerry Lewis and the elusive Video Assist patent

The entertainer is widely credited with a patent on Video Assist, a technology widely used in motion-picture production. But does such a patent actually exist?

I have tremendous respect for Jerry Lewis. He's a great entertainer, a ferocious intellect, and perhaps the greatest charity fundraiser in history.

I was pleased to see Lewis receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award during the Academy Awards ceremony in February, principally for his work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Jerry Lewis accepts the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy Awards. Michael Yada/Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

I had no idea that the annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon had raised more than $2 billion over the years. There are larger charities, but I don't know any that owe so much to the fundraising efforts of one man.

The technical side of my brain was intrigued to hear that Lewis had received a patent for "video assist" technology--the use of closed-circuit television to allow a film director to review scenes as they're filmed.

It seemed to me the story of Lewis' invention of video assist technology would make a good post for Speeds & Feeds. I figured I'd also be able to mention another famous movie-star patent, Hedy Lamarr's 1942 patent (US 2,292,387) on frequency-hopping communications (as Hedy Kiesler Markey), and Walt Disney's 1940 patent on animation (US 2,201,689).

I ran a Google search for "'Jerry Lewis' patent" and found many references to such a patent, including an article by a Mark Adler of VAIdigital offering the title "Closed Circuit Television Applied to Motion Pictures." Adler said Lewis came up with the idea in 1956 and first used it in 1960 on his first film, "The Bellboy."

An article by Michael Frediani titled "On the Set with Video Assist" from an issue of The Operating Cameraman (then the magazine of what is now the Society of Camera Operators) includes a picture of a video assist system, complete with Jerry Lewis' logo. Although the article says "Lewis holds the patent on it," the article doesn't mention a patent number.

In fact, none of the Web pages I could find mentioned a patent number, and I needed that in order to check out the patent itself. So I went to the source, the US Patent and Trademark Office Web site, and started searching. I'm very experienced at searching for patents, having done a fair amount of that work during my time at Montalvo Systems and even more since then as part of my consulting practice. I expected to find the patent within a minute or two.

But that's where this story began to get weird. I couldn't find any such patent--no patent with the title mentioned by Adler, nothing about video assist by any other name I could think of, and nothing by Jerry Lewis at all, not even under his birth name (Joseph Levitch).

I spent most of the next day running searches and came up empty. I didn't even find any references to related patents from this time frame in subsequent patents. This is a significant point; inventors are required to disclose so-called "prior art" patents if they're aware of any when filing a later patent application. Lamarr's patent, for example, shows up as prior art in many later patent filings.

I even did some international searching, mostly for prior-art references, but most online foreign databases have only limited coverage of older patents.

I wrote to Greg Aharonian, one of today's leading experts on the intersection of entertainment and patent law, about his reference to Lewis' patent in his book, "Patenting Art & Entertainment." (I also wrote about Aharonian's work in this area after Siggraph 2007 in a post titled "If you thought software patents were bad...".)

Greg wrote back promptly to say that he hadn't seen the patent and didn't have the patent number. I also wrote to a couple of other patent experts I know, but none was able to help.

In early March, I contacted Jerry Lewis' office through the William Morris Agency (where his official bio states "Jerry is also a successful inventor, whose patented video assist is currently used on virtually every movie set and on many television sets."). His office manager was unable to provide a patent number but did confirm that one exists and said the patent was "from 1960."

Simultaneously, I wrote to the Office of Public Affairs at the patent office, asking for help. Ruth Nyblod of that office replied, reporting that she had tried searching for the patent herself and was unable to locate it. Nyblod then asked some of the patent examiners in the relevant area to look through their own records. But after a few days, she informed me that no such patent "could be located along that line of technology."

I even challenged the editors of the Wikipedia article on video assist to find a reference to back up the claim that Lewis had a patent on the technology, but nobody could. Eventually we agreed to change the article to say merely that Lewis is "widely credited with inventing this system."

In the months since then, I've contacted Lewis' office several more times. I've explained that neither the patent office nor I had been able to find his patent, and I've left my e-mail address and phone number in the hopes that Lewis himself or someone else there might find the patent number and let me know. But I've heard nothing back.

There's no doubt in my mind that Lewis made inventive contributions to this technology; the evidence is overwhelming. But at this point, I have to conclude that there is no U.S. patent on anything related to video assist technology from 1956 to 1967 by Jerry Lewis or anyone else.

So why does Lewis claim to have a patent? His work might have led to a patent application being filed but rejected on a technicality, and it's possible Lewis lost track of the application's ultimate outcome...but I don't know, and he isn't saying.

This isn't the article I originally intended to write, but it's still interesting. I hope it'll prompt someone to come forward with the patent number, or at least the rest of the story.