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Well they kind of were. They had a patent on a somewhat crappy method of warping wings. They then argued that superior inventions that produced the same result (roll control of an aircraft) somehow infringed their patent. This sort of postfacto over extension of a patent is pretty much what patent trolls do. Just having a working invention of some sort does not immediately disqualify one from being a patent troll.

It all comes down to terminology. Which is interesting, since the wright brothers use the term flying machine to describe what we call an airplane, and aeroplane to describe what we call a wing.

Both inventions can be patentable, and I wouldn't consider either a patent troll.

One of the elemental claims (#3) of the wright brothers patent was simply changing the shape of the wings relative to one another to produce roll. This claim is clearly violated by a hinged alerion, if it's described as a single hinged-wing.

Without seeing the hinged-design patent, I can only speculate. But if it's described as a method of changing wing shape, it clearly violates #3. If however, they were to describe it as two connected and adjacent wings, they might not violate claim #3. But they'd still be violating other claims, including that of using a wing generating lift.

But... And this is key...

You can legally patent an improvement (hinged movement) to an invention (wing-shape based roll control) covered by someone else's patent. A derivative work is fine as long as it meets all other requirements of a patent, including being non-obvious and novel.

However, a patent doesn't give you license to produce that invention that you patented; it only allows you to prevent others from producing items incorporating the elements claimed within your patent.

So the hinged alerion inventor would still need a license to build an aircraft with wing-shape-changing based roll control, and the wright brothers would need a license to incorporate hinges into their design.

Everyone's invention is protected.

Though mounted separately and not on the wings:

"The modern aileron was invented and patented by the British scientist Matthew Piers Watt Boulton in 1868, based on his 1864 paper On AĆ«rial Locomotion."


Boulton's patent covers vanes attached to the wingtips, hinged at their center, and used to keep the wing stable about the roll axis. He describes a weight hanging from the center of the airplane attached to cables that rotated the vanes to make it stable.

The weight-hanging thing is clearly unworkable, as it would be gyrating and swinging about in the breeze.

Wing-warping and ailerons are far more workable, as the control force is in proportion to the amount of their deflection. This makes control natural. The vanes, being hinged on their centerline, have no such feedback.

As far as I know, no airplane has ever used such a device. I wouldn't call them "modern" ailerons at all. None of the Wright's contemporaries used it, including Charles Manly, the pilot of Langley's Aerodrome which had no longitudinal control at all, yet later argued that Boulton invented it.

I think there's a LOT to be said for inventing and building a system that actually works and flies, rather than a sketch on a piece of paper.

All modern aircraft can trace their designs right back to the Wright Flyer.

This is the approach I think I would argue, if in their shoes, as it's not dependent on changing the shape of the wing.

That said, another one if the Wright Brothers claims was adjusting angle of incendence of a lift generating surface to steer (calling the tail-horizontal-vertical-stabilisers "rudders").

Adding the aileron, in addition to the wing and tail, would probably qualify as a patentable claim. But I suspect the method itself would still fall within the Wright brothers claims for either the wings or the tail. But maybe not, as long as the aileron doesn't generate lift, which is a completely different argument if semantics.

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