At the beginning of the 1900s, “horseless carriages,” were becoming common in the United States. With names like Ford, Duryea, Winton and others, these early vehicles were making the transition from just being curiosities to the basis of real transportation. And one man claimed to own a patent that covered the intellectual property involves in all of these vehicles: George Selden.
Who was he?
George Selden was an inventor from Rochester, New York who had both considerable mechanical talents and a law degree. After attending law school, Selden was accepted as an examiner at the United States Patent Office where he honed his skills as a patent attorney. Presumably working nights, he also developed the concept of a “road engine,” an early car. In 1879, he was granted a patent for his invention. He did not build a prototype so the patent was based on “concepts” alone.
After the initial granting of his patent, Selden worked on the expansion of its claims. This was an extensive process that took him over 15 years. In 1895, he was granted a comprehensive patent on his road engine, now often referred to as an “automobile.”
His revised patent was broad and essentially covered all the intellectual property involved with any multi-cylinder, gas-powered vehicles being made, at least that is what he thought. However, the patent allowed Selden’s holding company, the Association of Licensed Automotive Manufacturers (ALAM) to collect royalties from all the American car manufacturers of the day. Firms such as Packard, Pierce, Cadillac, Knox, Olds, and many others, paid for licensing and advertised their vehicles as “licensed under Selden patents.”
Henry Ford refuses
One car manufacturer refused to pay any licensing fees to Selden: Henry Ford. Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, prominently denied Selden’s claims. One of his arguments was that he was buying most of his car parts from the Dodge Brothers machine shop in Detroit. Kindle Chrysler of May Court House, a local Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer in May Court House, NJ, explained that Ford’s argument was that he simply assembled cars, Dodge did most of the manufacturing and thus they should pay licensing fees to Selden. Eventually Ford formally contested Selden’s patent in court. The long, messy legal battle lasted over eight years and produced over 14,000 pages of documents.
The Selden Car
During the trial, the judge challenged the litigants to actually build an automobile according to the details outlined in Selden’s patent. This was to test the strength of the patent and to see if it really covered the present day automobiles being produced by Ford and others. The Selden car was built and not only was it a technological failure, it failed to cover much of the intellectual property that was being used by others.
In 1911, George Selden’s patent was overturned. Ford had argued successfully that the designs for his and other automobile engines were based not on Selden’s plans. They were based on an engine designed by Nikolaus Otto, a German engineer and inventor.
Soon the Association of Licensed Automotive Manufacturers was shuttered. This reduced George Selden’s name to that of a footnote in American car manufacturing. But the expiration of the “Selden license” paved the way for cheaper American automobiles so the American people benefitted.