Joe Nocera, writing in The New York Times, summarizes Lawrence Goldstone’s new book, Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies. The narrative about the extent of the patent fight between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss, another entrepreneur, was extensive (and something I had no idea about):
The Wright brothers’ critical insight was the importance of “lateral stability” — that is, wingtip-to-wingtip stability — to flight. And their great innovation was something they called “wing warping,” in which they used a series of pulleys that caused the wingtips on one side of the airplane to go up when the wingtips on the other side were pulled down. That allowed the Wrights’ airplane to make banked turns and to correct itself when it flew into a gust of wind.
But when the Wrights applied for a patent, they didn’t seek one that just covered wing warping; their patent covered any means to achieve lateral stability. There is no question what the Wrights sought: nothing less than a monopoly on the airplane business — every airplane ever manufactured, they believed, owed them a royalty. As Wilbur Wright, who was both the more domineering and the more inventive of the two brothers, put it in a letter: “It is our view that morally the world owes its almost universal system of lateral control entirely to us. It is also our opinion that legally it owes it to us.”
So, a brief note on the patent system by the author:
Without patent protection, a competitor can simply replicate an invention and undercut the inventor’s price — which necessarily includes all the time and expense of research and development — so the incentive to experiment and create is severely inhibited. But if innovators such as Glenn Curtiss cannot build on the progress of others without paying exorbitantly for the privilege, the incentive to continue to experiment and create is similarly inhibited.