Friday, March 15, 2013

Langley, Wrights, and Copyrights

Today I thought I would delve into the issue of copyrights, piracy, and just what is good for creative work and what harms it. Copyright is supposed to protect creative work, but does it? Is it effective? Piracy is suppose to be a bad thing, but is it? Is it as dangerous as some make it out to be?

My primary example of what to do and not to do comes from aviation. More correctly, the dawn of aviation. As the 20th century dawned, there were many who were trying to use the current engineering to produce a heavier than air flying vehicle. Lighter than air had been mastered more than a century before, but heavier than air was proving a challenge.

Modern research gives us some interesting glimpses as to what the situation was. In fact, the first person to actually fly may not be who we think it is today. There are several contenders, but none has solid documentation. But to those living at the time, there was one name, more than any other, associated with flight. That was Samuel Pierpont Langley. His work was public, as were his failures. He may have been the first to build a flight worthy aircraft, but on the first try, it clipped the catapult and crashed. It took months to repair and the second attempt also ended in a crash. Before the plane could be repaired for another attempt, the Wright Brothers had flown.

The Wright brothers worked in secret. Not complete secrecy, but they didn't advertise or conduct their flight tests in the public eye. Being the first to achieve a controlled, powered flight of a heavier than air vehicle, they go down in history. Their plane flew not just once on December 17, 1903, but four times. The poof that they were on the right track lay in successive machines based on that first one. They won the first military aviation contract from the US Army. But, as I said, they were secretive. They jealously guarded their patent and sued anyone who violated it. They quickly lost the PR campaign to Langley. The final straw was when Glenn Curtis rebuilt Langley's vehicle and successfully flew it. The Wright brothers maintained their legal right to the patent, but Langley got credit. In fact, modern aviation owes more to Langley and the other inventors than to the Wright brothers. The brothers were so paranoid in their protection of their patent that they ended up stifling aviation development in the US. They were so focused on protecting their invention that Wilbur died from the stress and they made few further innovations. Meanwhile Langley was given credit and during most of the 1920's and 1930's, he was considered the father of flight. By then the Wright brother's patent had expired and Glenn Curtis had seen to it that the Langley design had become the pattern for all US aircraft.

That brings us back to the present, where we all know the Wright brothers were the first to fly and, above all, had the most successful early aircraft design (aerodynamic controls, power, distance, altitude, etc). In our electronic age, we are plagued or tempted (depending on your point of view) with a plethora of illegal digital copies of music, movies, TV, books, and games. There are a rare few that actually charge for this illegal content, but it is usually free. To compare this with the Wright brothers, their method was to sue EVERYONE. There were no exceptions. They spent so much time and money on it that their work suffered. They are like the poster child for the RIAA and MPAA, who follow those same tactics. The Wight brothers went after anyone even using their inventions, most of whom were not making a penny on it. History has pretty well proven that it doesn't work. A more workable solution is to only go after the the major violators. Those who flaunt the law and those who are profiting from selling your ideas. That would have cut down immensely on the stress the Wright brothers put themselves under.

The best way to combat someone violating your idea is to make sure the public know it is your idea. The Wright brothers failed in this. They were so concerned about protecting their idea, they never truly profited from it and, for a good deal of time, they lost the recognition. In the end they even lost the design lineage. Langley truly is the father of modern aviation. To apply this to our modern digital piracy situation, you have to look at what is worth fighting and what isn't. If you try to fight every single infringement, you will face a never ending battle and you will ultimately lose the PR battle. You fight the ones who are taking credit for your work or charging money for it, and let those who are giving it away, with your name still attached, alone. It's free publicity, after all. That will really limit what you have to watch for, reduce your stress, and maximize your creative time. And that is really far more important than worrying over every single illegal copy out there. The best weapon in the fight against piracy is to keep creating. If you let that be impacted, you have lost, just like the Wright brothers lost. Don't follow the Wright brothers example.