Anniversary Post: Not First Motion Picture Camera

William Kennedy DicksonOn this day in 1891, Thomas Edison patented the motion picture camera. It’s a great example of how the patent system doesn’t work. Let’s start with the fact that Edison didn’t invent it, but rather one of his employees, William Kennedy Dickson. And it wasn’t the first motion picture camera. But it was a good design. But why would Edison get a patent on it? Lots of people were doing the same thing. But by that point, Edison had the lawyers necessary to take his team’s minor achievement and put the force of law behind it.

If the patent system had worked the way it does today, Edison’s patent would have done wonders to slow cinema as an art form. In fact, Hollywood owes its existence to filmmakers fleeing the east coast to get away from having to pay Edison royalties on every film they made. At this point, I would have to say that our intellectual property laws do more harm than good in terms of innovation. Regardless, I don’t know why people claim that Edison invented the motion picture camera. He wasn’t even close.

The first surviving film by Louis Le Prince was made in 1888 — almost three years before Edison patented his camera. Oh my God! What would we have done if we hadn’t given Edison that patent?! We might be stuck with a film industry that is, I don’t know, exactly the same as the one that we have today. The horror!

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