A contribution from Eric Hunting:
In two recent articles from Computerworld UK (http://www.computerworlduk.com/community/blogs/index.cfm?blogid=14&entryid=2961 & http://www.computerworlduk.com/community/blogs/index.cfm?blogid=14&entryid=2971&pn=1), writer Glynn Moody discusses the implications of digital fabrication for manufacturing’s intellectual property models and gets into some very interesting debates with some of his readers. Moody’s general assertion is that the advent of analogue copying will have the effect of making the formal patent irrelevant and that a return to reliance on trade secrets and trademarks will emerge based on the notion of value based on product provenance keyed to brand identity. This seems a quite reasonable and logical suggestion and I’m in general agreement. It has been clear to many for a long time that the patent has become an anachronism at best and at worst a quagmire of casual government bureaucratic corruption and a tool for some of the most egregious forms of corporate manipulation of the free market in modern times. Long before the advent of digital fabrication, movements have emerged among engineers and technology entrepreneurs for the reform or outright abolition of the current patent systems because of the severe obstacles to basic innovation they have been allowed to create. And though there has been a general ambivalence among political representatives afraid to expose their ignorance on the subject, consequences are plain; nations with weak/simple patent systems often outpace in rate of technical/industrial innovation those that are subject to strong, complex, overly-comprehensive, and commonly abused patent systems. This could be one of the important factors in the steady decline of western industrial power.
But there is an interesting soft spot in Moody’s argument; the nature of perceived value by provenance. Moody suggests that the superior value of an ‘authentic’ product rests in the product safety implied by that authenticity. Authentic products are subject to a level of ‘testing’ that insures their quality, which is implied by the reputation of the brand. Sounds reasonable except that quality control isn’t based just on post-production testing. In fact, in the manufacturing world it rarely is. Quality control is vested more in engineering and production technique than post-production testing -which tends to be limited to just a check of basic integrity of a product. (ie. does it turn on? Are there obvious cosmetic flaws?) Large scale assembled goods, like cars, are repairable in-plant and so one can ameliorate lapses in quality control on the back end of production by intercepting them in post-production testing. And thus cars do have a fairly extensive amount of unit testing compared to other goods. But a great many products depend on quality control on the front-end because the end-product is not so repairable or comprehensively testable. (you can’t really test the full integrity of an IC after its soldered to a circuit and hermetically sealed in some molded case. All you can really check in that case is if the product works and passes internal diagnostics if any) If quality control in production has failed, the product comes out junk and is discarded or recycled.
So there’s a question here of where -and to what degree- quality actually lies. How much is in the engineering/design? How much is in the materials? How much is in the production technique? I don’t think this invalidates Moody’s argument but it’s an interesting complication of the situation that brings up the question of how product value is perceived in the present and how rational that perception is. One of the problems associated with the general industrial illiteracy in our contemporary culture is that we don’t have a very rational basis for the perception of quality and economic value. You really can’t know the quality of something if you don’t know where and how it’s made and where its materials come from. And so we already do, out of ignorance, generally rely on brand-associated reputation. As a general rule, profit is based on a disparate perception of value. In a truly open market, if everyone had a complete understanding of the value of everything they exchanged, profit would be impossible. There would be only barter. This is where digitally-assisted commodities exchange is ultimately heading -the deliberate vagaries of national currencies the only thing preventing this. This may be why the contemporary consumer culture has maintained industrial and financial illiteracy and an over-specialized workforce. The more you can compartmentalize workers’ skills and knowledge the less ability they have to communicate trade secrets when you lay them off and value knowledge to the general population. And so, in ignorance, everyone depends largely on brands, whose ‘quality’ is not so much based on the actual product quality in the present but on the reputation associated with products produced in the past -since that’s the only empirical evidence we have to go on.
Manufacturing in general is on a trend toward demassification. Most consumer goods are not made in branded central factories anymore. They’re produced in anonymous ‘job shops’ in various places around the world. Following the trend established by the computer industry, an increasing number of products are the result of geographically dispersed production that ‘fans in’ up hierarchies of sub-system dependency to high-lever assembly near the point of consumption. In the near future, cars will begin being assembled on demand in the showroom -if for no other reason than that its more energy efficient/carbon reduced in product transport. Increasingly, the brand of a company has little association to the nature of production of products because, increasingly, that production is outsourced and dispersed. Brands are becoming more associated with aesthetic styles and lifestyle models -look at Apple. All this tends to force the vesting of quality control farther and farther toward the front-end -into the engineering/design aspect of the product. We have already begun to assume that this aspect of production will become digitally encoded and portable, the essential quality of the product now reduced to portable data. This reinforces Moody’s suggestion of the resorting to trade secrets but, as the music industry has demonstrated, this is an arms race the Goliath’s tend to lose.
So there’s a lot of interesting and unexplored depth to the proposition of analogue copying. We have a lot of interesting discourse on this to look forward to in the future.