Abstract: Invention, Imitation, Patent Practices, and the Four-Stroke Engine Business

Ruben Amengual


When the German Nicolaus August Otto built the first four-stroke engine in Cologne, opening the technological trajectory of the internal combustion motor, several firms were created to commercialize the new invention. In doing so, patents were perceived as a key tool to secure such intangible assets just at the dawn of the second industrial revolution, when international IPR agreements were also being developed. In this article, we analyze patent activity driven by Otto and his partners and firms in order to find out how domestic and international IPRs were managed and what patent strategies, institutional constraints, and business results were respectively followed, faced, and obtained. For that purpose, we carefully scrutinize Otto's petrol engine patents and their ups and downs in certain pioneer, first follower, and lagging countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the United States, and Spain. Our findings demonstrate that legal and institutional differences—such as the existence of previous patent exams, compulsory working clauses, or patents of introduction—influenced, first, disclosed technological information level and scope; second, firms' patent management strategies and learning; and third, technological diffusion patterns and, thus, pioneer firm returns.