Yes, The Aviation Industry Was Nearly Derailed by the Wright Brothers’ Patent

Well, it’s a new year, and with patent reform again on the horizon, we’ll be seeing a lot of articles like this one (promoted by this blog post). The article in question claims that there was no big patent holdup in the early aviation industry, that it’s all just a myth put forth by the U.S. government. As a consequence, you shouldn’t listen to anyone claiming that there are problems in the U.S. patent system.

But, one of the authors’ major contentions isn’t accurate, as I was able to discover with a little research.

Here’s a summary of the authors’ claims: Everyone who’s written about the patent battles in the early aviation industry relies (either directly or indirectly) on two letters written by the government. Those letters don’t cite evidence, which means that all the articles about the Wright brothers’ patent battles are based on no evidence.

The major fact in dispute is whether the Wright-Martin company (which owned the Wright brothers’ patent at the time) announced in December 1916 that it would sue any aircraft manufacturer that didn’t agree to a license for 5% of gross revenue with a minimum payment of $10,000 a year. Supposedly, the only basis for this claim is those two letters from the government.

The authors go on at some length about how the government accounts can’t be trusted, and they claim that the Wrights freely licensed their patents.

The problem is that the authors didn’t go looking for contemporary news accounts or other source material that might have contradicted their thesis. I did a quick search in the New York Times archives (which are a treasure trove, by the way) and found the following story from December 19, 1916: $10,000 a Year for a Wright License. One of the subheads reads: “Many May Have to Go Out of Business Under the Wright-Martin Ruling.” The article quotes the President of Wright-Martin as saying, “If they cannot pay the $10,000, they cannot make good airplanes.”

(The article also notes that Orville Wright had simply given his patent to Great Britain for free the previous year, which might have stung the U.S. government a bit.)

Aero World called this demand “unreasonable,” and expressed its worry that the Wright-Martin terms were “little likely to prove acceptable to the very few concerns capable of meeting them, and [] practically prohibitive to the majority of our domestic aeroplane builders.”

Other contemporary accounts also referred to “troublesome litigation,” with one newspaper reporting in 1914, “Since the decision in favor of Mr. Wright aviation has been dormant in this country… Every one connected with the industry has been fraid [sic] to move.”

There are going to be a lot of articles like this one in the coming months, so we’ll be continuing to check them. (This is not to say that the authors did no research; they did look at historical newspapers. But it seems that they missed the NY Times article, or any similar account of the Wright-Martin announcement.)

In this case, the main point of the article is off target; there was a patent war in the early aviation industry. It’s simply not a myth, as the authors claim.