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Patents and Birdmen

Patents and Birdmen
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In his new book “Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtis, and the Battle to Control the Skies”, Lawrence Goldstone tells the story of the feud between America´s two early air pioneers.  The interesting part of the book is not the battle taking place in the air as the Wright Brothers battled with Glenn Curtis to see who could be the superior airman. The more important battle was fought in the courts over the early patents for heavier-than-air flight.

Orville Wright developed the idea of twisting a plane´s wings to enable lateral control of the craft. For this great idea, the Wright Brothers were the recipients of an early “pioneer patent” – a right not only to the specific invention, but to the general concept. Even though Curtis developed flaps and ailerons on the wings to bring control to the craft, the Wrights fought in the courts (and often won) to stop him and other rivals from trespassing on their turf of general aircraft control.

The effect on flight innovation was more than noticeable at the time. The patent war they unleashed took the steam out of the budding industry. In 1912, only 90 aviators were in the air each day in the United States. Across the pond in France, nearly 1,000 airmen were flying, testing and further developing their craft.

Goldstone wraps up by questioning whether the restrictive patent system was positive for American airplane development. It obviously hindered airmen like Curtis´ ventures, resulted in costly (both in time and money) legal fights, and the Wright Brothers were in no rush to build upon their early discoveries.

Today similar patent fights are embroiling the tech world. “Birdmen” is a good example of how these fights played out in another era. It´s unfortunate that we only see the damaging nature of these laws with the benefit of hindsight.

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David Howden is Chair of the Department of Business and Economics, and professor of economics at St. Louis University, at its Madrid Campus, Academic Vice President of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada, and winner of the Mises Institute's Douglas E. French Prize. Send him mail.

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