A comment by a friend about a future world of smart machines and robots made me think of one way to illustrate the manifest injustice and absurdity of patents. Whenever patent and copyright are discussed, a few typical arguments routinely emerge:
- how would pharmaceutical companies make money without? After all, it takes hundreds of millions of dollars to do the research and testing, and if some competitor could just knock them off, no one would make the drugs in the first place. (Nevermind Boldrin & Levine’s complete evisceration of the empirical assumptions here in ch. 9 of Against Intellectual Monopoly.)
- And without copyright, you could never have blockbuster movies. (As if the purpose of this state monopoly is to make sure society produces Avatar; and forgetting that people go to movie theaters and pay for the privilege.)
- Patents are essential to protect the little guy. (Forget the fact that patents protect larger companies from competition from smaller players, leading to barriers to entry and oligopolies. See Patent Cross-Licensing Creates Barriers to Entry; Intellectual Property Advocates Hate Competition; also Kevin Carson, Criminalizing Competition.)
My point here is that the “strongest” case for patents is alleged to be the pharmaceutical industry. Now imagine a not-too-distant future world where 3D printers of all types are becoming more prevalent. It is easy to imagine machines designed to fabricate pharmaceuticals. If a new life-saving drug hits the market and costs thousands of dollars per year (due to the combination of the patent monopoly, the FDA system, medical licensure of doctors, government regulation of prescription drugs, and other state interventions), some consumers may prefer to “make their own” generic version, using reverse-engineered “recipes” floating around the web programmed into their own, or a friend’s, 3D drug printer. Just as the hacker community quickly cracks new iOS releases on the iPhone, say, it is not hard to imagine the drug-hacker community reverse engineering the composition and manufacturing method of pharmaceuticals–especially in this near future world with increasingly sophisticated and cheap analyzing and related equipment.
Now, these home-made generic pharmaceuticals might not be as good as the official ones. They might even be more dangerous. But to save thousands of dollars a year, many people might turn to this.
In such a world, what would Big Pharma and the state that it is in bed with do? Today, it’s easy for the state to pursue generic drug companies: they are visible and easy to target and find. And though attacking them indirectly harms the consumer, it’s not seen as a direct attack on the consumer–just as the poor and middle classes sometimes support taxes on corporations even though this ends up filtering down to them in terms of higher prices.
But in a world of home-brew drug printers, what would the state and its Big Pharma cronies do? Would Patent SWAT teams break down the front doors of homes of suspected “patent smugglers,” as is done now in the drug war? (And as illustrated in fiction, with respect to the use of patents to shut down crops infected by patented “seeds”–see, e.g., The Evil of Patenting Food and Seeds; season 4, episode 5, of the TNT program “Leverage”; Geoffrey Allan Plauché’s review of “The Calorie Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi.) There may be some of this, but in the end it would be hard to prevent such widespread “homebrew” drug fabrication. This would, of course, drive down the prices of the patented, “official” products.
Another tack the state might take would be to go after the use of information, as it does now in the case of copyright. Owning a 3D drug printer would not be per se illegal since it has so-called “non-infringing” uses. The only thing that would make certain uses of it illegal would be loading a given recipe into it that enables it to fabricate a version of some patented pharmaceutical. How would a consumer obtain these recipes? Probably on the Internet, by email, the Pirate Bay, and so on. So what the state would have to make illegal would be knowledge itself, a recipe for how to do something. It would be illegal to find out how to make a given drug. We are already seeing the beginning of the IP War on 3D Printing; it would no doubt escalate as home fabricators were used to manufacture high-priced drugs. So we can see that in the future, the only way to protect the patent for the allegedly most important case for patents, would be to have the state police and censor knowledge and information. And,
That, of course, is what the state does now, it’s just that it’s not as easy for consumers to see this yet. In the future, hopefully, with increasingly advanced technology, it will be harder and harder for the state to maintain its cover.