Thursday, March 17, 2011

Thoughts on Intellectual Property

I am an Engineer by training and temperament. Perhaps this is not such a good thing since I am often baffled by the mental machinations of philosophers. Reading some libertarian essays on the subject of Intellectual Property (Schulman and Smith come to mind) I am reminded of the old warning to be careful what you wish for.

I understand the value that creators add to the pool of human knowledge. Even when someone tries to prevent it, new knowledge still becomes part of the structure (or foundation depending whether you take your analogies straight or with soda) of human progress. Any system that does not encourage and reward those with the intelligence and determination to make new discoveries will fall behind quickly in the Darwinian competition between societies. However, any good idea can be carried too far.

Have you ever wondered why the first American military pilots in WW1 flew French made planes (Spad) with Spanish built engines (Hispano-Suiza)? Probably not but if you ever do, look no further than American patent law. Every time an American like Glenn Curtis (an innovative inventor in his own right) brought a new design to fruition, he was sued by the Wright Brothers for patent violations. Even though the Wrights held patents in Europe the courts there were less appreciative of Intellectual Property so European builders went ahead and just made planes.

Ignoring intellectual property concerns put the Europeans well ahead of the US in aviation by 1917. Perhaps the worst thing about all the litigation was how badly it tarnished the the image of the Wright Brothers as heroic pioneers. The lawsuits finally ended when, with the outbreak of WW1, aircraft builders established the Manufacturers' Aircraft Association to coordinate making of warplanes. To accomplish this they formed a patent pool at the prompting of the U.S. government. Royalties were fixed at one percent and free exchange of inventions and ideas took place among all the participants. After the war the litigation was not renewed because Orville Wright-- now without Wilbur who died of typhoid in 1912 -- sold his interest in the Wright Company and retired from the business. Once freed from the specter of endless litigation, the American aviation industry surged ahead of all the foreign competition.

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