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.