The Coordination of Independently-Owned Vacuum Tube Patents in the Early Radio Alleged Patent 'Thicket'

33 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2014 Last revised: 20 Nov 2015

Date Written: June 13, 2014


A popular theory is that it may be sufficiently difficult to reach agreement on patent license terms that holdup in development may occur. Early U.S. radio development is widely believed to provide an empirical example of such holdup during 1905-1920, with numerous allegations of an impasse in bargaining the necessary patent rights until these were ultimately incorporated in the RCA patent pool. This paper seeks to determine with new precision how entrepreneurs and managers actually managed patent rights in this scenario. Accordingly, we re-examine the legal trajectories and entrepreneurial exploitation of patents on early vacuum tube technology where Fleming’s diode patent was alleged to have “overlapped” with De Forest’s triode patents. We show, by means of the relevant historical record, patent claims, litigation records and other relevant law, how patent rights were resolved by the courts and by the immunity of suppliers to the government from patent infringement liability. We trace the cross-licensing agreements between the different radio interests and find that licensing was always chosen over holdup and so enabled robust, state-of-the-art radio development.

Keywords: Patent thicket, Overlapping patents, Anticommons, Holdup, Deadlock, Impasse, Radio, Vacuum tube, Diode, Triode, Marconi, De Forest, Fleming, RCA

Suggested Citation

Howells, John and Katznelson, Ron D., The Coordination of Independently-Owned Vacuum Tube Patents in the Early Radio Alleged Patent 'Thicket' (June 13, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

John Howells

Aarhus University ( email )

Department of Management
Fuglesangs Alle, 4
Aarhus, 8210


Ron D. Katznelson (Contact Author)

Bi-Level Technologies ( email )

Encinitas, CA
United States

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