Enabling Science Fiction

27 Pages Posted: 5 Feb 2021 Last revised: 26 Jul 2021

See all articles by Camilla Alexandra Hrdy

Camilla Alexandra Hrdy

University of Akron School of Law; Yale University - Information Society Project

Daniel Harris Brean


Date Written: December 14, 2020


Patent law promotes innovation by giving inventors 20-year-long exclusive rights to their inventions. To be patented, however, an invention must be “enabled,” meaning the inventor can actually describe it in enough detail to teach others how to make and use the invention at the time the patent is filed. When inventions are not enabled, like a perpetual motion machine or a time travel device, they are derided as “mere science fiction”—products of the human mind, or the daydreams of armchair coots, that are not suitable for the patent system.

This Essay argues that, in fact, the literary genre of science fiction has its own unique—albeit far laxer—enablement requirement. Since the genre’s origins, fans have demanded that the inventions depicted in science fiction meet a minimum standard of scientific plausibility. Otherwise, the material is denigrated as lazy hand- waving or, worse, “mere fantasy.”

Taking this insight further, the Essay argues that, just as patents positively affect the progress of science and technology by teaching others how to make and use real inventions, so too can science fiction, by stimulating scientists’ imagination about what sorts of technologies might one day be possible. Thus, like patents, science fiction can have real world impacts for the development of science and technology. Indeed, the Essay reveals that this trajectory—from science fiction to science reality—can be seen in the patent record itself, with several famous patents tracing their origins to works of science fiction.

Suggested Citation

Hrdy, Camilla Alexandra and Brean, Daniel Harris, Enabling Science Fiction (December 14, 2020). Michigan Technology Law Review, Science Fiction and the Law Symposium Issue, Vol. 27, Forthcoming 2021, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3748840 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3748840

Camilla Alexandra Hrdy (Contact Author)

University of Akron School of Law ( email )

259 S. Broadway
Akron, OH 44325
United States

Yale University - Information Society Project ( email )

New Haven, CT

Daniel Harris Brean

Independent ( email )

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