Enabling Science Fiction
27 Pages Posted: 5 Feb 2021 Last revised: 26 Jul 2021
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.
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