Scientists Are Citing Patents For Things That Don’t Actually Exist


Publish Date:
June 13, 2019
Discover Magazine
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Let’s say I have an idea for a great invention one day — a series of pneumatic tubes that would shoot pods with people inside between cities at hundreds of miles an hour. My “Superloop” sounds like a sure-fire hit, but I don’t have the resources to pull the project off, and what’s more, the technology to build it isn’t actually there yet.

But I don’t want someone with more money to come along and snag the invention from me — I did do the hard work of having the idea, after all. If I lived anywhere else but the U.S., I might be out out of luck. But here, where bootstraps (even imaginary ones) are the upwardly mobile tool of choice, there’s a way to secure the rights to inventions and processes that don’t actually exist yet. It’s called a prophetic patent.

But prophetic patents could be causing mischief in another way, as two law professors from Fordham University School of Law and the Stanford Law School point out. Scientists will often cite patents in their work, using them to build a case for technologies or ideas, they say in an editorial in Science. But many don’t seem to recognize the difference between prophetic patents for things that don’t exist and patents for things that do. It could lead them to inadvertently suggest breakthroughs or technologies that simply aren’t possible, fooled by the weaselly wording of a patent application.

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