Why Sci-Fi Writing Should Have Patent Protection

Why Sci-Fi Writing Should Have Patent Protection

By Sanjena Sathian


Because great ideas come from both art and science.

By Sanjena Sathian

This year was the year Marty McFly came back to the future. And that future was sweet — hoverboards, flying cars, at-home nuclear fusion power, self-tying shoes, video conferencing, tablets. We got some of it, and other parts … not so much. But it says something, doesn’t it, that one of the best metrics we have for just how far society has come is a movie? The thoroughly dreamy imaginations of an artiste?

That’s because, of course, so many of the grand ideas that make up our present and will make up our future are envisioned by sci-fi authors and screenplay writers before anyone else. There are gadgets, sure, but there’s also Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, which just about every AI researcher I’ve met has tattooed onto their brains. (The first is that a robot may not injure a person or through inaction let a person be harmed.) And in a world where we talk of intellectual property, I wonder: Why aren’t fictional ideas in their purest, rawest forms a version of IP?

Perhaps, we suggest, they should be — after all, writers are underpaid and artists provide cultural identity. And if we believe the argument used in tech that weak patent laws discourage innovation … well, what sort of remuneration exists to encourage innovation in the arts? 

A semi-satirical slew of cases by a bunch of writers? That’d make the news and call attention to an interesting problem. 

For newbies, there are basically three forms of IP: trademark, copyright and patent. Trademark protects a company’s name or catchphrase; copyright usually covers language — like Taylor Swift’s lyrics! — and patents tend to refer to objects or inventions. Writers like Asimov or Ray Bradbury, who imagined iPod-style headphones in Fahrenheit 451, can protect their language and texts through copyright. But they don’t meet the standards required to file a patent — novel, non-obvious and useful, explains June Besek, an expert in copyright law at Columbia Law School. 

Perhaps more importantly, I’m reminded by Rebecca Tushnet, professor at Georgetown University Law Center, giving credit to “just” (psh, I’m wounded at first) ideas “decreases the value of work.” She tells me, “We need people who imagine things, but we also need people who are inspired by Star Trek to go and become engineers.” And being an engineer is some imagination, but 90 percent “working and working and working. We often ignore the benefits of failure — or practice.” 

But Tushnet’s point about work might just be another reason a whole bunch of writers claiming IP for their work could be a good thing — think of “patent trolls,” or companies that sit on ideas for ages when they might or might not have done that work. A semi-satirical slew of cases by a bunch of writers? That’d make the news and call attention to an interesting problem.

Tushnet leaves me with one thought, though. Sci-fi writers might be at their best not when they’re conjuring up neat gadgets but when they show us dystopias. “Science fiction,” she says, in a surprisingly literary turn, “is always diagnostic of who we are now. It’s never about the future.” Which echoes the great Ursula K. Le Guin: “Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists.”