Treatise on applicability of patents in the modern age

This article is still being written.

When history of human civilization is being considered one factor of incredible importance is often omitted. I’m talking about basic physical quantity, which determines the inner working of all things existing, available free energy.

This situation is quite understandable, as history was seldom considered to be a precise science (fortunately, historic science evolves toward being more precise). Even Karl Heinrich Marx, with his ahead of time insight, that human society is primarily shaped by the available means of production, had not fully followed the idea through. This caused a lot of confusion in later times, and still stirs controvery, even though the basic idea proved itself correct on multiple occassions, owning to distruptive techological changes of 19th and 20th centuries. Since Marx’s theories are associated with the political movement called communism (the connection is not, in fact, obvious) I’ll refer to the fictional universe of Star Trek: The Next Generation television series as a tongue-in-cheeck example. The social organisation depicted there almost precisely corresponds to communist utopia and it’s only made possible by the existence of perfect replication technology and intelligent automation. Indeed, if technological means allowed material wishes of any society member to simply come true without much effort (this includes arbitrarily complex entertainment setups, to the level of better than real simulated people), most, if not all, social problems we are facing these days will simply disappear.

Available energy was the primary factor shaping the development of human civilization through most of its history. Society needed energy direly. Personal access to even a couple of working horses (2 HPs, 1.5 kWt of power) guaranteed personal well-being and considerably higher quality of living compared to unfortunate people who had to rely on their bare hands. Invention of modern sailing rig (very efficient way to harvest wind energy) immediately put the rest of the world into the mercy of European navies, thanks to faster and more manoeuvrable ships. Forging of metals, just the same, was mostly bound by the amount of harvestable fuel, and greatly improved with the invention of water wheel assisted mines and forges. In short, whatever great ideas Archimedes of Syracuse, Leonardo da Vinci or any other inventor of old could have, their realisation was rendered impossible by the absence of sufficient energy reserves. Human creativity was essentially supressed by energy deficite.

Invention and wide adoption of steam engines and fossil fuels in the late 18th – early 19th century brought not only quantitative, but enormous qualitative change, which we call now “Industrial Revolution”. In its deepest essence, the whole change was about solving the everlasting energy deficite. It’s not like energy became free, far from it. Rather, it finally was possible to produce enough energy on demand to solve any engineering problem pending.

The Prometheus of human creativity was finally delivered from his bounds. A lot of talented and enterprising people rushed to explore and create things, which couldn’t even be dreamed about a couple of generation beforehand. To bring some order into this sudden “gold rush” of engineering activity, modern patent system was introduced.

Here, it’s a good time to clarify the meaning of the technological patent. Its concept is much older, than industrial revolution and was always envisioned to serve as competition regulator. Kings granted patents to selected manufactures to protect their income levels, as failing to do so could very well result with all skillful artisans dying from hunger at some unfortunate point of time. This is of course a vast simplification and the system often suffered from abuse, but the intention was precisely this.

Same intention was carried into the conception of 19th century technological patents. All people think roughly in the same way (otherwise, inter-personal communication will be outright impossible), so even most ground-breaking ideas normally occur to multiple people working within some technological discipline. Additionally, people, true to the primate origins, are very good in reverse engineering and copying things. Anybody familiar with history of industrial espionage could notice how quickly even best guarded trade secrets were stolen or guessed from the available products. Therefore, the purpose of disclosure in technological patent is not to serve as some form of magazine, publishing new ideas for everybody’s enjoyment (despite what some patent proponents like to say), but merely describe, what is being protected from competition for the sake of future conflict resolution.

One important feature that patents have not never posessed is encouragement of the inventor proper. Out of hundreds thousands of presently filed patents only counted examples exist of inventors becoming rich thanks to their technological ingenuity. In fact, researching almost any successful inventor’s biography we invariably find the story of deceit and exploitation, often of blatant or outright criminal nature. Of course, there should be exceptions from this unsfortunate rule, some people who managed to benefit from their justly obtained patents without harming anybody, but scarcity of such cases only reminds us of Cicero’s famous maxim: exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis.

Nevertheless, we may assume that the net result of patent system use in the 19th century was probably beneficial for the society. As I already pointed out above, that century benefited from the unseen before explosion in creative thought fueled by the invention of seemingly endless compact energy source. Consequentially, there was an abundance of “low hanging” technological ideas, allowing every decent enterpreneur to have literally dozens of projects to pursuit, even if he is unable to claim patent protection on some of them. Patent system, acting in its natural role of competition regulator, artificially limited the rate of progress (which was way to fast), allowing some people a little of creative breathing space and letting others some more adaption time to the changing landscape of civilization. Negative effects of the patent system during that era were additionally offset by national ambition: sovereign states seldom bothered to honour other nation’s patent, especially if patents in question treatened to curdle their aspirations for world domination.

Everything has its ending, and so the wonderful age of steam, ingenius inventors and cunning crooks, aptly named Belle Époque by french, had ended in the flames of Great War. This enormously important conflict coincided and was caused, among other things, by a sort of techological “Maltusian” crysis. This crysis shaped the techological progress and, necessarily, the future of humanity since then. Even discarding technological issues it seems that we are stuck in a long, slowly fading aftermath of 1918. Needless to say that fiery hecatombs of World War II proved to be completely futile and unable to influence anything.