Today is the 115th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. President Trump, an outspoken supporter of intellectual property, has declared today to be Wright Brothers Day.
For aviation enthusiasts, it’s certainly a day worth celebrating. For those concerned about rent-seeking through intellectual property, it’s a celebration of the first shot in a patent war launched by the aviators.
In 1906, the Brothers received a patent for the Wright Flyer (they first filed in 1903). In the interim, according to Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine in their book Against Intellectual Monopoly, the Wright Brothers:
[W]ere capable of building an airplane or teaching other people how to do it, but they did not…[W]hile refusing to devote any effort to selling their own airplane, they did invest an enormous amount of effort in legal actions to prevent others, such as Glenn Curtiss, from selling airplanes.
While the Brothers keeping their invention under wraps for a few years was their prerogative (functionally, they treated it like a trade secret), their subsequent legal action against other inventors of flying machines was shameful. They claimed that their patent covered any flying machine, rather than just the specific design of their airplane. From Sean Trainor writing for Time:
The Wrights, however, wished to patent not only their wing-warping mechanism [while other flying machines were able to get off the ground, this component made it possible to control the craft] but any future device for adjusting the “lateral margins” of an aircraft’s wings – and, in so doing, laid legal claim to the principle of aeronautic control they had discovered. If the patent were interpreted in the way they hoped, it would give them monopolistic control over the aircraft market for years to come…
[The impact of the Brothers’ patent war with Curtiss and other innovators] was indisputably negative. Even before Wilbur’s death in 1912, during a period of intense litigation, the Wrights had sorely neglected R&D—so much so that by 1915, when Orville sold the company he and his brother had founded, their aircraft were derided as dangerous and obsolete. Once the envy of the skies, Wright aircraft had become an embarrassment. Meanwhile, even though other American designers continued to develop impressive innovations during the period of the patent wars, the American aircraft industry as a whole was stunted by the litigation. In fact, by the time the United States entered World War I in 1917, the state of domestic aviation was so dismal that the U.S. government could not find a single American aircraft fit for military service. [Emphasis added]
Let that sink in. Not only did their patent trolling harm innovation more broadly, but the Wright Brothers’ pursuit of profit through policy put the U.S. at a military disadvantage 100 years ago.
What makes this story such a shame is that the Wright Brothers, while far from the first to conceive of a flying machine, were nonetheless talented inventors. Rather than continuing to innovate on their design, they chose instead to pursue profits through the courts system.
For those interested in a real hero of innovation in aviation, check out the story of Howard Hughes. The aircraft he was instrumental in designing, the H-4 Hercules (nicknamed the Spruce Goose), was a behemoth of an airplane. It was, in 1947, simply too big to be practical, but an innovation nonetheless.
How much of the design was patented? Zero. (Searching the USPTO database, the first patent for the Hughes Aircraft Company was filed in 1973). “If it benefits aviation, that’s all that mattered to him.”