Mersenne or a 17th century "Majordomo"
Mersenne acted as mass-mailing program. He kept everybody up to date with the new discoveries of everybody else by corresponding with major minds of his time. To be able to do this he encouraged his correspondents to divulge their latest discoveries. Previous to that most of the scientist were reluctant to expose their achievements, to be able to keep their patrons endowments flowing.
Mersenne counteracted that trend by forcing the concept that discoveries have to be disclosed, because scientist have a pivotal role in promoting our species. It then becomes a duty for the scientist to share as much as possible of his inventions.
Human herd or human being?
Man is not a solitary type of animal but a societal one. (This was a quick way to answer a question ;-). Rousseau's idea of the human being as a separate entity is a nice and romantic concept, but it is very far from the reality. The idea of sharing your hard-earned discoveries could seem counter-intuitive in the individualistic societies of the 20th century, but we have to understand that social fabric is what keeps the human species so successful.
Hindering the natural flow of information can cause individuals or single corporation to increase their success or their wealth, but the total impact on society is minimised. Requiring payment to disclose a discovery could be compared to to a lioness keeping the kill for herself and letting all the male lions die of starvation. While this could strike a chord with some feminists, it goes against our duty which is, as Mersenne put it, to encourage mankind in its progress.
Cigarettes and alcohol and patents will stunt your growth
Patent law apparently created a workaround of this principle. Inventions under these laws are protected during a limited period of time, so as to encourage the person or the association that made this invention. The argument was that as long as we keep our scientist happy in the short run by protecting their hard work from being copied, they will come back and invent some more. In the long run, these inventions would benefit the whole mankind since they would fall back into the public domain.
There are however two problems with this type of laws:
- Patents protect investments not growth.Today's most notable discoveries are not the act of isolated people, but of group of scientist working in conjunction with large corporations. This leads to the fact that science has become a tradable currency and patents are here not protecting the recognition that is due to a scientist, but the investment of companies. Scientist may be interested in increasing their wealth, but their primary interest is to associate their name to a specific discovery and grasp their piece of immortality by being hailed by their peers. Companies are interested in their shareholders.
- The general benefit to society in the short-term is not taken into account.The most expensive scientific experiments (and by some standards the most useless ones) are funded by public money, and have usually a very long term horizon. The ISS or the European particle accelerator are examples of scientific endeavours that won't benefit mankind in the short term. On the other hand, while private endeavours can also be useless, they are most of the time directed towards society's benefit in the short-term to maximise profits. Patents protect these discoveries in the short-term and prevent the human species as a whole from benefiting from it. A prime example would be the controversy between AIDS drug manufacturers and third world countries.
Mersenne the commie
However patent law did hit one right note. Discoveries require something in return. The only problem is that something should have been a single "thank you". This would come as a shock to certain people, but it is perfectly ok to do a good act towards mankind and not expect something disproportionate in return.
This is a communist idea, and pressuring inventors and scientist to expose their findings goes against the western standard of individual liberties. But even a communist idea has its good side, and society as a whole does benefit if ideas are shared. A stopgap measure would be to limit further the extent in time of patents. But the principle of the patent is still wrong, and a better solution would be the realisation of the fact that what is produced by the intellect cannot is not akin to a property. Ideas are like a bird's song: They belong to everybody and nobody. (The same can be said about songs and copyright, even Britney Spears' songs. But that is a whole different subject). What we should hail is the person or corporation who helped give birth to this idea. But as any proud parent would tell you, giving birth and owning are two different concepts.
Mersenne can be thanked for the many discoveries that he made, and that is all that the he wanted. He may have invented scientific communism before its time, but his greatest work was the discovery that benefiting society is a loftier purpose than benefiting yourself.