The Patent Wars – Part 3, Vindication

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Patent Wars

After Wilbur’s death in 1912, Orville became the president of the American Wright Co. On February 1913, he left with Katharine for Europe to follow-up on Wilbur’s pursuit of their patent litigation.

Their first stop was in England, where they assisted in the establishment of the British Wright Co. Along with the establish of the new company, the British government made a lump-sum payment of 15,000 pounds as settlement of all unauthorized use of the Wright patent in England.

The next stop was in Germany. They arrived just in time to hear that the German Supreme Court uphold “with great regret” the earlier ruling of the German patent office that the Wrights forfeited all rights to their patent because of “prior disclosure.”

They did throw the Wrights a bone by recognizing the fact that they were the inventors of wingwarping and had patent control of the combined use of wingwarping with a vertical rudder.

It was then on to Paris for a week. There, the French High Court announced a ruling that seemed to favor the Wrights, but once again the judges allowed a defense motion to create another panel of experts to review “prior art.”

Wilbur, before his death, maintained that the claim of prior art was “absolutely rot.” “The art was at an absolute standstill in France from 1897 till 1902, when we invented our method of control. The patent was not published till June 1904. It was only after reading it that they began to apply our system.”

It would turn out that the lawyers involved on both sides would manage to drag out the case without resolution until the Wrights’ French patent expired in 1917.

Orville and his sister sailed for home on March 9. Good news awaited them. Judge Hazel on February 27, handed down his decision upholding the Wright patent. Curtiss was enjoined from manufacture, sale and exhibition of airplanes.

Not surprisingly, Curtiss appealed and was again allowed to continue operations.

On January 13, 1914, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the Wrights “as pioneers in the practical art of flying heavier-than-air machines.” Orville was pleased with this decision and believed it provided total vindication for all of Wilbur’s and his hard work.

Every airplane that flies today does so by use of devices and discoveries first made by the Wright brothers.

Captain Thomas Baldwin, an associate and friend of Curtiss, in an interview published in the New York Times, February 28, 1914, acknowledged the indebtedness. “It is high time for all of us to step up and admit not a one of us ever would have got off the ground in flight if the Wrights had not unlocked the secret for us.”

Then a strange thing happened. Henry Ford, whose company was founded in 1903, the year of the Wrights’ “first flight”, decided to help Curtiss by offering him the services of his attorney, W. Benton Crisp. Crisp had previously helped Ford win his long patent fight with George Seldon who claimed to have a prior patent on a lightweight engine called the “road engine.”

Crisp adroitly exploited a technicality with a new approach for challenging the Wright patent. The strategy was for Curtiss to disconnect the ailerons so that they could only work independently of each other. This approach was covered under the Wright patent, but had never before been cited or included in the earlier suit. The Wright Co. would have to bring suit all over again which they did on November 16, 1914.

(Ford and Orville later became friends and Ford arranged with Orville to move the original Wright homestead and last bicycle shop from Dayton to Ford’s Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan where they were restored.)

Earlier in 1914, Curtiss tried another tactic. He was permitted to take the failed original Langley machine that was in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, to Hammondsport, New York, to make tests in an attempt to invalidate the Wright claim of pioneers. The machine was reported to have flown but only after modifications from the original. (Archives: The Wright Brothers Roundabout Route to the Smithsonian.)

While this was going on, Orville placed in motion a strategy to sell the Wright Co. Orville had never been happy in his role as president of the company. He didn’t like being in management and made no secret of it. He didn’t even keep an office in the factory building, preferring to use his old office above the bicycle shop where his secretary, Mabel Beck, guarded the door to unwanted intruders.

His strategy was to buy up all the company shares held by members of the board except one of his friends. To pull this off, he took a large risk and borrowed a large amount of money for the first time in his life.

His strategy worked and he sold the company to seven eastern investors on October 15, 1915. By so doing, he walked away from the business, including the patent suit.

The Wright Co. continued to pursue the patent suit, but it was never completely resolved. Curtiss was able to drag out negotiations with repeated proposals for settlement that were never finalized.

World War I brought an end to the fiasco. The U.S. Government stepped in and commanded a truce to resolve the dispute when America entered World War I in 1917. Ford’s lawyer Crisp, still on retainer to Curtiss, developed a successful plan to bring all concerned parties together in a new organization known as the Manufacturers Aircraft Association. The organization is still active today as the Aerospace Industries Association and represents the airplane and space industry

All members of the association were granted use of the patented technology after payment of a blanket fee. Curtiss and Wright-Martin, successor to the Wright Co., each received $2 million under the agreement.

So, the epic patent wars ended with a Wright victory of sorts. But victory is one that brings to mind Pyrrhus of Epirus, king of an ancient country in northwest Greece.

Plutarch reports that after defeating the Romans in the battle of Asculum in 279 B.C. Pyrrhus said, “One more victory like this will be the end of me.” His name lives on in the word for victory at too great a cost.

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