Yesterday I posted about sharing information -- how it can be a self-interested thing to do, even if the information is valuable, and even if most people don't share theirs back.
Meanwhile, back in patent-land, patent experts are saying that it's not worth getting a patent these days for anything less than a million-dollar idea -- because that's how much it costs to defend one. That's also how much it costs to fight a fraudulent patent -- which are being issued in droves.
When a company gets big enough, it will want to compete by getting special privileges rather than by innovation and quality. This is called "rent seeking" and economists recognize it as a form of inefficiency. Rent seeking is an integral part of capitalism, more so as companies grow in size -- but it damages the free market. (It's interesting that many people use "free market" and "capitalism" as though they are interchangeable -- here is an example that shows they're not.) The modern patent system does not support the free market. Instead, it supports the rent-seeking side of capitalism -- the side that continues to damage the software industry. In at least some industries, reducing the number of patents granted would actually help the free market.
You may say that, for all its faults, the patent system still protects the small inventor. At $8,000 to get a single patent, I have to wonder how "small" an inventor can be and still use the system. But that's only the first problem. An idea that's worth stealing can still be stolen. One tactic (among many) is for a competitor to write additional patents that cover trivial but necessary aspects of its implementation that didn't make it into the first patent. I can get a patent for a great invention, one that I could sell to telecom companies for a million dollars apiece. In response, one of those companies writes a new patent for my idea plus "...using a disk drive." Now I can't sell it to any other companies at all, and the company with the patent can set a much lower price, because my idea is useless without their patent.
There may be industries that benefit from patents. The software industry has not benefited. Companies, individual programmers, and customers have been hurt by software patents. Designs for general-purpose nanofactory products will be similar enough to software that patents will probably be bad in that case as well.
This is an important issue. If it's done wrong, it will delay important innovations by many years and cost the nanofactory-product industry many billions of dollars. Some of those delayed innovations will be lifesaving, so lives as well as money are at stake.
If patents were not granted for (certain classes of) inventions, wouldn't this be a Communist-style theft of the work of the inventors? No, it would not. No one would require inventors to disclose their information. And if they did choose to, there would be other legal protections including copyright, which supported a thriving software industry for decades. Intellectual property is purely a societal construct, an artificial scarcity -- and in the case of both patent and copyright, it was originally justified by the claim that granting limited property rights would encourage invention and benefit society.
Administering and litigating patents requires substantial resources. Complying with patents costs still more -- and the cost is not only resources lost, but opportunities missed for new innovation. If the benefit to society of patents in a certain field is less than the cost, then the original justification for patents falls apart, and we must find a new justification or else refuse patents in that field.
Refusing patents might reduce the hypothetical future government-supported income of a small subset of inventors. This is not the same as stealing existing resources -- a confusion often used to good rhetorical effect by the rent-seekers. A government that steals existing wealth is bad. A government that refuses to create special-interest wealth is probably good. Refusing to create a small amount of special-interest wealth, in favor of creating far broader and larger opportunities, is definitely good: good for inventors, good for society, good for small businesses -- in fact, good for everyone except anti-free-market rent-seekers.
Software takes hard work and creativity to develop, and once developed it can be copied and run at near-zero cost and high value. Product designs for general-purpose manufacturing systems will have the same characteristics. Copyright protection of software was good for almost everyone; software patents were bad for almost everyone. The same will be true of designs for molecular manufacturing products.
This should be an aspect of molecular manufacturing policy that everyone from Socialists to Libertarians can agree on -- everyone, that is, exept the few who profit from rent-seeking. And let me repeat: the stakes are very high. Billions of dollars and thousands (if not millions) of lives are at risk if innovation is crippled by bad patent policy.