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How the Patent-Troll Wright Brothers Fought to Stifle Innovation

February 5, 2018 in Economics

By Chris Calton


By: Chris Calton

The standard justification for patent protection is that without this government-granted monopoly, innovations will come to an abrupt halt. People only innovate with the expectation that they will make money, and this form of economic protectionism is therefore necessary in a capitalist economy.

So say the great expositors of crony capitalism, anyway.

But when one begins to study the history of technology, the patent demonstrates quite clearly that such protection is a roadblock to innovation, rather than the driver of it. I can cite numerous examples of this (firearms, television, etc.), but I believe the most telling history is that of the airplane.

According to our textbook histories, the Wright brothers are hailed as the inventors of the airplane. To say that this is an exaggeration is generous. Orville and Wilbur Wright offered an important innovation that served as a step toward sustained flight – namely, they developed a system for controlling the airplane by twisting the wings of a plane – but after taking aircrafts a step forward, the brothers spent most of their career making sure that no other innovations could follow. This is because what standard histories call “the invention of the airplane” is really just the government grant of a patent.

The patented technology was important, but it still required serious improvement before the airplane could become a viable means of transportation. But with their patent in hand, the inventive brilliance of these two men transferred from designing new machines to developing legal strategies to prevent anybody else from improving on their innovations. Time magazine refers to the Wright brothers as “patent trolls.”

Most of the great innovations in flight did not come from the Wright brothers but, instead, came from their greatest competitor, Glenn Curtiss. Although the Wright brothers were the first to make a successful controlled flight, they refused to demonstrate this ability to the public. Instead, they patented their technology and guarded their innovation jealously, all while Glenn Curtis was busy innovating publicly and with no great fear of people “stealing” his ideas.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Curtiss developed several innovations in flight – far surpassing the Wright brothers’ wing-warping novelty. In fact, to circumvent their patent, he developed his own system of controlling flight that is the predecessor to the modern technology: the aileron.

The Wright brothers claimed that the aileron – what was then referred to as …read more


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