Patents and Birdmen

300px-First_flight2In 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.

(Originally posted at Mises Canada.)


  1. One of the odd facts about the myth that the Wright brothers were pioneering scientists is that their flight at Kitty Hawk (if it actually occurred) was the LAST flight the Wrights made for several years. That is, instead of continuing to develop and experiment with better aircraft designs or with the desperate need for a workable engine, the Wrights merely filed patents and hired lawyers. They also went around trying to sell a license to governments to build copies of the Wrights’ unproven designs. I believe they wanted $50,000 for each license at a time when this would have been HALF of the entire German army’s budget for ALL aircraft, including dirigibles.

    The Wrights also persisted in designs that required a rail and catapult to launch the planes, and mere skids to land on. The French army found this essentially useless because it meant that aircraft, which the French wanted as reconnaissance platforms, would be tied to a rather immobile base and require that any aircraft forced to “land out” would have to be disassembled and carted back to the flying field’s catapult in a horse drawn wagon.

    So the entire world, except for the Wrights, produced an explosion of heavier than air machines that actually worked and constantly worked better. While the Wrights, with their primitive designs, were driven out of the airplane business. The Wrights later bought a company that made engines for aircraft, but neither of the Wrights ever had anything to do with the design of those engines.

  2. Mises Economics Blog would do well to stop discrediting itself until the following questions are answered:

    3 Questions for Stephan Kinsella, Jeffrey Tucker, or Stefan Molyneux
    Super Abundant IP?
    Stephan Kinsella and the other Intellectual Communists claim that Intellectual Property (IP) is unnecessary because it is super-abundant, like a “magically reproducing lawnmower” in Kinsella’s words.

    It is agreed that there is no justification for property rights in super-abundant goods. The best (maybe only) example of a super-abundant good is atmospheric air. Here on the surface of the earth, we find ourselves with more than enough air for every person to breathe. Notice that people never attempt to buy and sell air to breathe. Every person already has all the air they need, delivered right to their faces.

    Under water air is scarce. Notice that people do buy and sell air for breathing underwater, in the form of scuba tanks.

    Question 1:

    If IP is super abundant, why do people act as though it is scarce? In particular, why do people contract for the delivery of IP (movies, songs, software, video games)?

    Contract Requires Property Rights

    Kinsella contends that IP are creations of the coercive state, and would not exist in a libertarian world. It is agreed that property rights and voluntary contract are the basis for prosperous free society. It is a well-accepted principle of contract that one may only contract with that which is one’s own property. I can offer to sell you my car, but I can’t offer to sell you my neighbor’s car, because I don’t own it.

    Question 2:

    In a world without IP, how could we possibly contract for the intangible goods people want?

    By contracting for the physical containers? That’s absurd. Yes, I understand that intangible goods require physical containers to be useful, just as many physical goods require physical containers to be useful. But people do not contract for the delivery of containers. We don’t care about containers. We care about content. If the pattern of ideas on a DVD is not rightful property, then there is simply no basis to contemplate buying, selling or licensing such a pattern.

    Boycotting Plagiarists
    Jeffrey Tucker and Stefan Molyneux have suggested boycott and ostracism as a response to plagiarism in a world without copyright. They believe that consumers will recognize that plagiarism is fraud, and refuse to deal with such a bad guy. They are correct that plagiarism is fraud, but only because a property right is at stake.

    By definition, fraud is harming another person by inducing a reliance on a deception. I deceive you, you rely on the deception, and are harmed as a result.

    Suppose you write a book, and I plagiarize it, offering it up as my own work. I have deceived you, because we had an understanding that I would not copy your work. You relied on my deception, because you trusted me. Under copyright law, I have harmed you because I interfered with your intellectual property.

    But if there is no property right in the authorship, then who have I harmed? The true author? No, because I did not take or interfere with the author’s property. Did I harm readers of the book? No, the content of the book is the same regardless. Are the readers harmed because they don’t enjoy the benefit of the reputation of the true author? No, reputation is another form of intellectual property, and a rather tenuous one at that.

    Absent copyright, plagiarism is not fraud.

    Question 3:

    Why would you ostracize a plagiarist, when the plagiarist has not violated anyone’s property right?

    Is the plagiarist wrong simply because plagiarism is dishonest? No. Lying is only wrong when done to deprive another person of property. Deceiving a robber about the location of your valuables is virtuous.

    Tucker and Molyneux are quite correct that the free market would punish plagiarists. This is simply an admission that people recognize the property rights violation that plagiarism is.

    Stephan Kinsella, Jeffrey Tucker, Stefan Molyneux, or any other Intellectual Communists are invited to answer.

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