Science Fiction Prior Art – Ep. 29 [Podcast]
In this week’s episode of Stuff You Should Know About IP, Thomas Colson and Raymond Guarnieri examine whether a science fiction work can be used as prior art to block a patent. In order to obtain patent protection, an invention must be novel and non-obvious. If a science fiction work shows that an invention is either obvious or not new, then the science fiction work can prevent the invention from being patented, but only if the work describes the invention in sufficient detail. For example, in 1968, Charles Hall’s utility patent application for a water-bed was rejected because Robert Heinlein had thoroughly described a water-bed in three science fiction works: Beyond this Horizon in 1942, Double Star in 1956, and Stranger in a Strange Land in 1961. But Star Trek would not block a patent for a transporter beam, and Star Wars would not block a patent for a light saber, because neither Star Trek nor Star Wars describes how either invention actually works. Litigants can also cite science fiction in cases involving infringement of design patents. In 2011, when Apple sued Samsung for design patent infringement, Samsung argued that Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was relevant prior art. Even The Sunken Yacht, a Donald Duck cartoon by Carl Banks, was used as prior art to block a patent. Karl Kroyer sought a patent for his method of raising a sunken ship by using a tube to fill it with ping pong balls, but his application was rejected because Donald Duck did it first.