Famous (Legal) Battles of Ideas

In yesterday's post on the anniversary of the first flight, I commented on the patent infringement suits between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss, which essentially ended in a "draw," so to speak, as the corporate legacies of both, merged to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.

But such arguments over "who's on first," is, unfortunately, common to the arena of ideas. As famous as the invention of the airplane is, the invention of the telephone as a form of mass communication has had an even greater impact on the world's social and political structure. Yet here too was a legal battle over who intellectualized first. Although Alexander Graham Bell, in 1876, patented his electronic speech transmitter first, Elisha Grey, patented his "new art of transmitting vocal sounds telegraphically" only hours later. The ensuing patent suit ended with Bell's victory, which explains why we receive monthly bills from Bell Canada and not Grey Telephone Co. 

The patent concept arose from the written granting of rights and privileges by the monarchy under royal seal. Thus, the Latin "litterae patentes" means "open letter." The Venetian glass-makers of Renaissance Italy informally made use of this patent system. Thus, the first recorded patent in 1449 England was a patent for a glass-making technique.

Although I could not find an estimate of the number of patent law suits to date, a new study suggests the financial costs, in the past four years in the USA, have risen to $83 billion per year. In August 2011 alone, there were 294 patent lawsuits in the USA. According to some critics, we are experiencing a "patent bubble," with most major intellectual corporations involved in multiple patent suits. For example, Apple is embroiled in 97 "open patent" cases alone.

These "battles of ideas" span time, place, and area of expertise. The obvious conflicts come from the inventors: Thomas Edison was involved in multiple patent suits. In the gaming arena, the legal battle over Tetris was as epic as the game. The Zuckerberg vs. Winkervoss and Winkervoss (or Winkervii) battle spawned a movie. The Newton and Leibniz argument over Calculus, still rages today. 

Such arguments have spilled over into the Arts as well. Jeff Koons has been both the initiator and defender of artistic copyright suits. Stephen Joyce, James Joyce's grandson, has scrupulously, some say miserly, restricted the use of his grandfather's writings. Although June 2012 sees the end of his copyright fiefdom, the repercussions of his aggressive stance has caused no end of intellectual difficulties.

Musically, legal accusations abound. In a recent U.S Supreme Court argument on the limits of copyright legislation, Chief Justice Roberts reminded the Court of Jimi Hendrix and his famous rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner." In response to the government's support of the new legislation, Roberts commented on Hendrix when he stated "assuming the national anthem is suddenly entitled to copyright protection that it wasn’t before, he can’t do that, right?" 

Finally, we must come full-circle, as I am wont to do, and mention the penultimate legal battle of ideas: the Scopes Monkey Trial, famously depicted in the play/movie Inherit The Wind and upon which I have blogged previously. The clash of beliefs as represented by the Scopes case and still on-going today, is a real testament to how dearly we as individuals, and as society, hold onto our ideals and ideas.

Which makes one wonder: Is there a patent for that?





Were The Wright Brothers Right? A Lesson In Patent Law

On December 17, 1903, 108 years ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright made aviation history when their powered airplane rose twenty feet above the North Carolina coastline.

Little did they know then that this event would also launch a lengthy and bitter patent suit against another aviation marvel, Glenn Curtiss.

According to the Wright brothers, Curtiss used their patented lateral control and aileron design in his fliers. The subsequent legal battle drained both parties' finances and health. When the final decision was rendered in 1913, granting success to the Wrights, only Orville was alive to accept the verdict.

This, however, was not the end as Henry Ford, also a victim of patent litigation in which he lost an action before the same judge, persuaded Curtiss to test the Wright patents even further. The resulting patent battle resulted in another protracted action which resulted in a temporary stay of the original patent suit. 

World War I intervened and all suits were suspended as the government permitted sharing of all airplane patents in support of the war effort. The end of the war saw an end to the dispute as Orville Wright sold his interest in his company and chose not to reinstate the patent proceedings.

Of course the irony is as they say, history, when the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company merged with the Wright Aeronautical Corporation in 1929 to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, which still survives today.

This merger, however, did not end the Corporation's protection of their patents in Canada and the United States. Two such cases, suggest that Curtiss-Wright's successes in that area have been less than satisfactory.

Indeed, patent litigation today is a risky, yet financially necessary, step to protect intellectual property. The financial stakes are high and litigation on these highly technical issues are traditionally drawn out and complicated. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering Microsoft to pay $290 million for patent infringements of a small Canadian IT company serves as a costly example.

Although we have made huge (flight) strides from 1903 Kitty Hawk, our patent laws and subsequent litigation seem to be move at a snail's pace. Perhaps, the legacy of flight should also be a lesson in the vagaries of litigation. Either way, today was truly a world-changing day in history.