Airplanes and the intellectual commons

Today’s post is based on a great paper by Peter Meyer, on the invention of the airplane. He also has a set of slides summarizing the paper and offering lots of pictures of early plane designs.

The data set that he put together is of the writings, correspondences, and patents regarding air travel during the period before anybody worked out whether air travel is even possible.

He paints the picture of a real community of interacting researchers. Letters are sent, ideas are shared. Patents are obtained, but then immediately pledged to the world at large. We get a sense of a small community of people that everybody else thought was crazy (until they were proven right), and who longed to see flight happen. Some people, most notably Octave Chanute, worked hard on being an information hub to keep the conversation going.

And then, they stopped. Two members of the community, the Wright Brothers, were especially active until about 1902, at which point they realized that their design could actually fly, and they stopped sharing. By the next decade, the correspondences stop and the patent battles commence:

This rapid takeoff of the industry, unmoored from the original inventors, suggests that much of the key knowledge was widely available. There were great patent battles after 1906 in the U.S. (and after 1910 in Europe) and industrial competition, but the key knowledge necessary to fly was not in fact licensed from one place or closely tied to any particular patent.

Looking to somewhat more recent history, the software world followed a similar pattern. Before the mid-1990s, software was largely seen as not patentable. That was the period when people came up with word processors, spreadsheets, databases, compilers, scripting languages, windowed GUIs, email, chat clients, the WWW. Then, after a series of federal circuit rulings which I will not rehash now, patents showed up in the software industry. If Rip van Winkle fell asleep in 1994, he’d see modern computing technology as amazingly fast and tiny and beautiful, the product of ten thousand little incremental improvements, but a basically familiar elaboration on what was in the commons in 1994.

The 3D printing world has a different history, because the early innovations were deemed patentable from the start. Many authors characterize the 3D maker world as being in a holding pattern, because key patents from the mid-1990s claimed the fundamental technologies. For airplanes and software, the fundamental building blocks were out in the public before the lawyers showed up. For 3D printing, the patents came from the start, so it took the 17-year wait until their expiration for the common tools to become commonly available.

[By the way, I found that last link to be especially interesting. It lists 16 patents that the authors identify as key to 3D printing, though the authors refuse on principle to say that their being freed up will advance the industry. Five of the sixteen are listed as having “current assignment data unavailable”, meaning that even if you wanted to license the described technology, the authors—a Partner and Clerk at an IP law firm—couldn’t tell you who to contact to do so. Orphan works aren’t exclusive to copyright.]

These are loose examples of broad industries, but they make good fodder for the steampunk alt history author in all of us. What would the 1910s and 1920s have looked like if airplanes were grounded in a patent thicket? What would our computer screens look like today if WordPerfect Corp had had a patent on the word processor? What would the last decade of our lives have looked like if the cheap 3D printer technology emerging today were patent-free then?

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