North Carolinians (and Ohioans) ought to be especially interested in Thomas Donlan‘s latest editorial commentary in Barron’s. It focuses on the Wright Brothers and economic issues surrounding their historic first flight.

Complexity is a sign of weakness in design, philosophy, engineering, law, and public policy. Applications for nearly a half-million patents a year is not necessarily a sign of many hard-working creative inventors. In the U.S., it’s a sign of many hard-working creative lawyers.

Americans ought to wonder just how much patents had to do with our industrial success. In the inventors’ Hall of Fame, one finds inventor after inventor who pursued patents, instead of building their businesses.

The Wright brothers were archetypal American heroes. They were obscure bicycle mechanics who built a flying machine, while the War Department was funding Samuel Langley’s crashing machine. But they spent several valuable years after 1903 pursuing patent rights around the world and several more years trying to defend them. They did not spend those years improving their prototype with as much vigor and ingenuity as those who had no basic patent rights.

By the time World War I provided huge demand for airplanes, the Wrights’ company was far behind. It didn’t introduce ailerons or the tractor propeller until 1915, and it built its last airplane in 1916.

Many other inventors became twisted and bitter because they could not force the patent system to work the way they thought it ought to. They believed too much in their right to intellectual property, in their right to royalties, in their right to control their inventions, and in their right to have the government enforce their rights.