David Koepsell, author of Innovation and Nanotechnology: Converging Technologies and the End of Intellectual Property, is a philosopher, attorney, and educator who teaches at the Delft University of Technology (the Netherlands). He is also author of Who Owns You? The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes.
In a Feb. 27, 2012 interview with Dr. J (James Hughes, executive director of the Institute of Ethics for Emerging Technologies [IEET] and producer/interviewer for Changesurfer radio), Koepsell discussed his book about nanotechnology and the disappearance of intellectual property regimes in a 28 min. 51 sec. podcast.
Koepsell and Dr. J provided a good description of converging technologies so I’m going to plunge in without much introduction.
I wasn’t expecting to hear about Marxism and the means of production but there it was, mentioned in the context of a near future society where manufacturing can be done by anyone, anywhere by means of molecular manufacturing or by means of 3D fabrication, or etc. The notion is that production will be democratized as will the intellectual property regime. There were several mentions of the state (government) no longer having control in the future over intellectual property, specifically patents and copyrights, and some discussion of companies that guard their intellectual property jealously. (I have commented on the intellectual property topic, most recently, in my Patents as weapons and obstacles posting in October 2011. Koepsell is mentioned in this posting.)
Both Koepsell and the interviewer (Dr. J) mentioned the possibility of widespread economic difficulty as jobs disappear due to the disappearance of manufacturing and other associated jobs as people can produce their own goods (much like you can with Star Trek’s replicators). But it did seem they mentioned job loss somewhat blithely, secure in their own careers as academics who as a group are not known for their manufacturing prowess or, for that matter, the production of any goods whatsoever.
It seems to me this future bears a remarkable resemblance to the past, where people had to create their own products by raising their own food, spinning, weaving, and sewing their own clothes, etc. The Industrial Revolution changed all that and turned most folks into ‘wage slaves’. As I recall, that’s from Marx and it’s a description of a loss of personal agency/autonomy, i.e., being a slave to wages (no longer producing your own food, clothing, etc.) and not a reference to poor wages as many believe (including me until I got a somewhat snotty professor for one of my courses).
The podcast is definitely worth your time if you don’t mind the references to Marx (there aren’t many) as the ideas are provocative even if you don’t agree. Koepsell describes how his interest in this area was awakened (he wrote about software, which is both copyrightable as writing and patentable as a machine).
Science demands unfettered inquiry into the workings of nature, and replaces the confidence previously demanded over rote knowledge with a practiced skepticism, and ongoing investigation. With the rise of the age of science came the need to develop new means of treating information. Scientific investigations conducted by ‘natural philosophers’ could only be conducted in full view, out in the open, with results published in meetings of scientific societies and their journals. Supplanting secret-keeping and obscurantism, the full sunlight of public and peer scrutiny could begin to continually cleanse false assumptions and beliefs, and help to perfect theories about the workings of the world. Science demanded disclosure, where trades and arts often encouraged secrets. And so as natural philosophers began to disseminate the results of their investigations into nature, new forms of trade, art, and industry began to emerge, as well as the demand for new means of protection in the absence of secrecy. Thus, as the scientific age was dawning, and helping to fuel a new technological revolution, modern forms of IP [intellectual property] protection such as patents and copyrights emerged as states sought to encourage the development of the aesthetic and useful arts. By granting to authors and inventors a monopoly over the practice of their art, as long as they brought forth new and useful inventions (or for artistic works, as long as they were new), nation states helped to attract productive and inventive artisans and trades into their borders. These forms of state monopoly also enabled further centralization of trades and industries, as technologies now could become immune from the possibility of ‘reverse-engineering’ and competitors could be kept at bay by the force of law. This sort of state-sanctioned centralization and monopoly helped build the industrial revolution (by the account of many historians and economists, although this assumption has lately been challenged) as investors now could commodify new technologies free from the threat of direct competition, secure in the safe harbor of a state-supported monopoly over the practice of a useful art for a period of time.
In many ways, traditional IP [intellectual property] was (and is) deemed vital to the development of large industries and their infrastructures, and to the centralized, assembly-line factory mode of production that dominated the twentieth century. With the benefit of a state-sanctioned monopoly, industry could build sufficient infrastructure to dominate a market with a new technology for the duration of a patent. This confidence assured investors that there would be some period of return on the investment in which other potential competitors are held at bay, at least from practicing the art as claimed in the patent. Factories could be built, supply chains developed, and a market captured and profited from, and prices will not be subject to the ruthless dictates of supply and demand. Rather, because of the luxury of a protected market during the period of protection, innovators can inflate prices to not only recoup the costs of investment, but also profit as handsomely as the captive market will allow.
For most of the twentieth century, IP allowed the concentration of industrial production into the familiar factory, assembly-line model. Even while the knowledge behind new innovation moved eventually into the public domain as patents lapsed, during the course of the term of patent protection, strictly monopolized manufacturing processes and their products could be heavily capitalized, and substantial profits realized, before a technique or technology lost its protection. But the modes and methods of manufacturing are now changing, and the necessity of infrastructural investment is also being altered by the emergence of new means of production, including what we’ll call ‘micromanufacturing’, which is a transitional technology on the way to true MNT (molecular nanotechnology), and is included in our discussions of ‘nanowares’. Essentially, assembly-lines and supply chains that supported the huge monopolistic market dominance models of the industrial revolution, well into the twentieth century, are becoming obsolete. If innovation and production can be linked together with modern and futuristic breakthroughs in micromanufacturing (in which small components can be fabricated and produced en mass, cheaply) and eventually molecular manufacturing (in which items are built on the spot, from the ground up, molecule by molecule), then we should consider whether the IP regimes that helped fuel the industrial revolution are still necessary, or even whether they were ever necessary at all. Do they promote new forms of innovation and production, or might they instead stifle potentially revolutionary changes in our manners of creation and distribution?
Amusingly, towards the end of the interview Dr. J plugs Koepsell’s ‘nanotechnology’ book by noting it’s available for free downloads then saying ‘we’re hoping you’ll buy it’ (at the publisher’s site).