Personal Fabrication Intellectual Property Rights
I just finished reading Fab the other day and a most intriguing question came to mind.
What place will patents have in an age of personal fabrication?
Think about it. A patent is a set of exclusive rights granted by a government to a person for a fixed period of time in exchange for the regulated, public disclosure of certain details of an invention.
This works in an industrial, mass-production economic setting where a patent is implemented many times over and sold to some consumer; a portion of the sale returns to the patent holder by way of the licensing agreement. The patent's use in a product is what is licensed, not (disclaimer: IANAL) the actual implementation being produced; the use is more general than the implementation. That specific implementation would be covered under Industrial Design Rights, or at least some sort of Copyright for the plans+schematics. A patent could theoretically be licensed and enforced on a per-personal-fabricator basis, but that would probably not be an economically viable approach, though I am sure lawyers would be most happy to oblige.
I could write a book on how to build your own PC motherboard from scratch (off-shelf parts), detailing a system whose implementation (how everything hooks up) would definitely span many active patents. As long as you build it for yourself, not to sell, you don't have any licensing fees to pay. Depending on how I copyright my book, you may or may not have to pay royalties on any copies of the book made, but that's all.
Like a musician playing from sheet music, a personal fabricator would be "performing" the recipe. A new score of an old (public domain) song would be covered by copyright with respect to copying the score, but not performing the song. Performing from a score for a new (copyright active) song would have licensing fees attached, but again that's only if the piece is delivered to the public at large in a local pub or concert hall; I can still play it in the privacy of my own home, probably to a private audience.
The case you make for your PC, assuming it's an original design by you, could be covered under ID rights, and pictures taken of it would be copyrightable. If the case is a scale model of the Starship Enterprise then it's still yours to own but probably not to sell without paying licensing rights to Paramount Pictures, and taking pictures of it for profit would probably also be subject to copyright and licensing requirements.
In a mass-personal-fabrication society, what is the point of patenting anything? I could write, copyright and sell "how to use my invention" instructions.
I could provide you with the "build me" compiled object to feed the personal fab equipment. This would be copyrightable and probably ID protectable in some fashion... This could almost qualify as a software patentable entity, but at best it's a virtual bits-implementation of final atoms-product.
Can a better-mousetrap patent be applied to a virtual implementation of said patent? Only if it works to catch virtual mice.?.
More to ponder...
Edited to add: I think this will land up being part one of something, since these thoughts were swimming in a pool of contemplation after having read The Long Emergency. This is personal fabrication in a post-fossil-fuel infrastructure context, where the increased costs of energy required for mass production and proliferation skew the picture.