Akron Law IP professors to present paper at Science Fiction and the Law panel


Four Akron Law students participate in a mock trial competition virtually

Camilla Hrdy

University of Akron School of Law professor Camilla Hrdy will present her essay “Enabling Science Fiction,” co-authored with former Akron Law professor Daniel Brean, at the Jan. 8 Association of American Law Schools (AALS) panel: Science Fiction and the Law, co-sponsored by the Biolaw and Intellectual Property sections. The full essay may be downloaded on SSRN and will come out in print in Michigan Technology Law Review this spring. A summary of the essay can be found on the patent and IP blog Written Description.

In the essay, Hrdy and Brean explain that, “to be patented…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.”

Hrdy and Brean argue, however, that “the literary genre of science fiction has its own unique — albeit far laxer — enablement requirement”: namely, readers demand that fictional inventions “meet a minimum standard of scientific plausibility,” lest they be rejected as “mere fantasy.”

Moreover, the authors continue, just as patents teach “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”—as “several famous patents” have in fact been inspired by science fiction.

We spoke with Hrdy about her interest in science fiction and its intersection with intellectual property and patent law. The conversation here has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Where does your interest in science fiction come from?

Well, my father was a big sci-fi fan, my aunt is a big sci-fi fan, and my sister is a big sci-fi fan, so it's been in the household for ages. I think it was comic books where I first read science fiction — my sister’s “X-Men” comics — which we argue in the essay are, technically, works of fantasy, not science fiction! Later, my dad introduced me to the classics, like Isaac Asimov and the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels. By high school, I had become quite a fanatic. I had a special science fiction bookshelf, and I used to write science fiction. It must have been quite alarming to my roommate in boarding school when I plastered the wall with “Star Trek” and “X-Men” posters.

How did you come up with the topic?

When I saw the call from AALS last year for papers on science fiction and the law, I thought, gosh, I really need to write something for this. I'd been thinking more about science fiction, with the pandemic universe we're living in. I was reading and listening to some of my sci-fi favorites, and it just came to me that there is an enablement requirement in science fiction.

When Dan Brean and I were both teaching at Akron, we bonded — not just over intellectual property and patent law, but also over our shared love of science fiction. I recalled that he had written an article about science fiction being used as prior art to invalidate a patent as being obvious or not novel. It occurred to me that what Dan was thinking about was analogous to what I wanted to write about: Does the genre of science fiction itself have an “enablement” standard in the sense of demanding a certain degree of scientific plausibility? Because if it does, then it's more likely science fiction will be cited as prior art against patents. And we just went from there.

I guess you two aren’t the only sci-fi fans among IP law professors.

Yes, there are some parallels between intellectual property — especially patents — and science fiction. It was a lot of fun working on this, for sure, but once you start to take the argument seriously and you say, look, if fans of science fiction are demanding a level of scientific plausibility, how different is that from patent law, where you are required to give very detailed disclosures of your invention to get a patent? The idea is that others can rely on those disclosures and innovate further in future. We're not arguing that science fiction needs to be fully enabled in the sense of reduction to practice, but couldn’t plausible fictional inventions have some of the same imagination-stimulating effect that patents do? We cite various examples where science fiction in some sense predicted or inspired or preconceived things that we have today. It would be taking it too literally to say that because science fiction fans demand plausibility is why we have so many inventions. It’s more that this genre directs the reader’s imagination towards scientific possibilities that they might otherwise not think of.

Have you had any response to the essay from your students?

I did send an email to my IP students, and I got a couple of responses saying thanks. But classes were almost over when we published. I would love to talk about it next term, because I do have a bunch of sci-fi fans in the IP program. Who knows, maybe one day there could be a seminar on science fiction and IP, or science fiction and patents. I can imagine that. You might need to prove you’ve read certain comic books or science fiction books to be accepted. (That’s a joke of course!)

Thank you for your time. Is there anything else you wanted to mention?

Well, this was a great chance to collaborate with Dan, my old friend and Akron Law colleague, and a great example of collaboration within the law school. I hope people will look at the summary and read the full essay. We had a lot of fun writing it, so I hope people will enjoy reading it.