Adams v. Burke/Dissent Bradley

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Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

84 U.S. 453

Adams  v.  Burke

Mr. Justice BRADLEY (with whom concurred Justices SWAYNE and STRONG), dissenting:

The question raised in this case is whether an assignment of a patented invention for a limited district, such as a city, a county, or a State, confers upon the assignee the right to sell the patented article to be used outside of such limited district. The defendant justifies under such a claim. He uses a patented article outside of the territory within which the patent was assigned to the persons from whom he purchased it. The plaintiff, who claims under the original patentee, complains that this is a transgression of the limits of the assignment.

If it were a question of legislative policy, whether a patentee should be allowed to divide up his monopoly into territorial parcels, it might admit of grave doubt whether a vendee of the patented article purchasing it rightfully, ought to be restrained or limited as to the place of its use. But the patent act gives to the patentee a monopoly of use, as well as of manufacture, throughout the whole United States; and the eleventh section of the act (of 1836) expressly authorizes not only an assignment of the whole patent, or any undivided part thereof, but a 'grant and conveyance of the exclusive right under any patent, to make and use, and to grant to others to make and use the thing patented within and throughout any specified part or portion of the United States.' [3]

If an assignment under this clause does not confer the same rights within the limited district which the patentee himself previously had in the whole United States, and no more, it is difficult to know what meaning to attach to language however plain.

On the 26th day of May, 1863, letters-patent were granted to Merrill & Horner, for a certain improvement in coffin-lids, giving to them the exclusive right of making, using, and vending to others to be used, the said improvement.

On the 13th day of March, 1865, Merrill & Horner, the patentees, by an assignment duly executed and recorded, did assign to Lockhart & Seelye, of Cambridge, in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, all the right, title, and interest which the said patentees had in the invention described in the said letters-patent, for, to, and in a circle whose radius is ten miles, having the city of Boston as a centre. By necessary consequence (as it seems to me), the right thus assigned consisted of the exclusive right to make, use, and vend the improved coffin-lid within the limited territory described; but did not include any right to make, use, or vend the same outside of those limits. As the assigned right to make the lids was a restricted right, limited to the territory; so the assigned right to use them was a restricted right limited in the same manner. Each right is conveyed by precisely the same language. A different construction would defeat the intent of the parties. For if the assignees, after making any number of lids within the limited district, could use them or authorize others to use them outside of the district, the balance of the monopoly remaining in the hands of the patentees might be rendered of little value.

If it be contended that the right of vending the lids to others enables them to confer upon their vendees the right to use the lids thus sold outside of the limited district, the question at once arises, how can they confer upon their vendees a right which they cannot exercise themselves? The only consistent construction to be given to such an assignment is, to limit all the privileges conferred by it to the district marked out. It is an assignment of the manufacture and use of the patented article within that district, and within that district only.

Difficulties may, undoubtedly, be suggested in special cases. If the patented thing be an article of wearing apparel, sold by the assignee within his district, it is confidently asked, cannot the purchaser wear the article outside of the district? The answer to acute suggestions of this sort would probably be found (in the absence of all bad faith in the parties) in the maxim de minimis non curat lex.

On the other hand, the difficulties and the injustice which would follow from a contrary construction to that which I contend for, are very obvious. Take the electric telegraph, for example. Suppose Professor Morse had assigned his patent within and for the New England States. Would such an assignment authorize the vendees of his assignees to use the apparatus in the whole United States? Take the planing machine: would an assignment from Woodworth of his patent within and for the State of Vermont, authorize the assignees to manufacture machines ad libitum, and sell them to parties to be used in other States? So of Hoe's printing press, and a thousand other machines and inventions of like sort.

Such a doctrine would most seriously affect not only the assignor (as to his residuary right in his patent), but the assignee also. For if it be correct, there would be nothing to prevent the patentee himself, after assigning his patent within a valuable city or other locality, from selling the patent machine or article to be used within the assigned district. By this means, the assignment could be, and in numberless instances would be, rendered worthless. Millions of dollars have been invested by manufacturers and mechanics in these limited assignments of patents in our manufacturing districts and towns, giving them, as they have supposed, the monopoly of the patented machine or article within the district purchased. The decision of the court in this case will, in my view, utterly destroy the value of a great portion of this property.

I do not regard the authorities cited as establishing a different doctrine from that now contended for. The remark of Chief Justice Taney, in Bloomer v. McQuewan, that 'when a machine passes to the hands of a purchaser, it is no longer within the limits of the monopoly; it passes outside of it, and is no longer under the protection of the act of Congress,' is perfectly true in the sense and application in which the Chief Justice made it. He was speaking of time, not territory; of the right to use a machine after the original patent had expired and a renewal had been granted, not of using it in a place outside of the grant. All the effects mentioned by the Chief Justice would undoubtedly follow so far forth as it was in the power of the vendor to produce them, but no further. And he would never have contended that those effects would follow any further than the vendor's power to produce them extended. That is the very question in this case. How far did the assignee's interest and, therefore, his power extend? In my judgment it was limited in locality, both as to manufacture and use, and that he could not convey to another what he did not have himself. I hold, therefore, that the decree should be reversed.


^3  Washburn v. Gould, 3 Story, 131; Blanchard v. Eldridge, 1 Wallace, Jr., 339.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).