Scott Paper Company v. Marcalus Mfg Company/Dissent Frankfurter

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Dissenting Opinion
Frankfurter

United States Supreme Court

326 U.S. 249

Scott Paper Company  v.  Marcalus Mfg Company

 Argued: Oct. 17, 1945. --- Decided: Nov 13, 1945


Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER dissenting.

When by a fair and free bargain a man sells something to another, it hardly lies in his mouth to say, 'I have sold you nothing.' It certainly offends the rudimentary sense of justice for courts to support one two purports to sell something to another in saying 'What I have sold you is worthless', even though he did not expressly promise that what he sold had worth. The obvious implications of fair dealing in commercial transactions have been part of our law for at least a hundred years. And it would be surprising indeed if the law made a difference whether what was purported to be sold was a diamond, or a secret process for manufacturing a commodity, or a patented machine.

It has never been questioned that courts will not make themselves instruments of unfair dealing when what is sold is a patent. In technical language, the sale of a patent means its assignment. Congress might have confined the right to exploit a patent solely to the patentee. Congress has acted on the contrary policy. Ever since the Act of February 21, 1793, 1 Stat. 318, Congress has sanctioned the right to assign patents, requiring only fulfillment of certain formalities. To be sure, Congress has not said in so many words that the seller of a patent-an assignor is subject like other sellers to the obligations of fair dealing. It has not said that he cannot turn around on the morrow and render futile that which he has sold by claiming that what he purported to sell as a patent was in truth not a patent, and, since it was not a patent, he, the seller, could not be charged with impairing the worth of the patent by practising it himself. Until this day such a sophistical argument to accomplish overreaching in a business transaction has uniformly been rejected by the courts, and it has been rejected by this Court on basic considerations of 'fair dealing'. Westinghouse Co. v. Formica, 266 U.S. 342, 350, 45 S.Ct. 117, 120, 69 L.Ed. 316. It is relevant to recall that insistence on this doctrine was unanimously made in the Formica case by a Court which included Mr. Justice Brandeis, than whom no one was more zealously alert against the slightest inroads upon the public interest through undue extension of patent rights. It is important to emphasize that the principle of good faith which the conscience of equity has thus enforced binds only an assignor who seeks to use the courts to defeat that which he purported to sell. It merely restricts one person, the assignor, from denying that he sold a patent when he purported to sell it, leaving the whole rest of the world free to assail the validity or novelty of the patent.

To be sure, the patent legislation does not in so many words formulate this doctrine of fair dealing between assignor and assignee. But patent legislation, like other legislation and indeed like all compositions, impliedly contains presuppositions which need not be spelled out precisely because they are taken for granted. The fair intendment of a patent assignment authorized by Congress is as much to be respected as the same meaning explicitly stated. Patent legislation is part of the great body of law. Familiar equitable doctrines, applicable to the whole domain of law and unquestioned as part of the judicial process, are infused into specific enactments dealing only with the specific problems that call for specific formulation. If warrant in the language of Congress had to be found for all adjudications made by this Court in litigation involving patents, no inconsiderable volume of decisions drawn from general equitable principles ought never to have been made and should be undone.

The principle of fair dealing as between assignor and assignee of a patent whereby the assignor will not be allowed to say that what he sold as a patent was not a patent had been part of the fabric of our law throughout the life of this nation. It has been undeviatingly enforced by English-speaking courts in this country, in England, in Canada, and Australia. See, e.g., Oldham v. Langmead, cited in Hayne v. Maltby, 3 T.R. 438, 439, 441 (1789); Indiana Mfg. Co. v. Smith, 10 Can.Exch. 17 (1905); Shepherd v. Patent Composition Pavement Co., 5 AustJur. 27 (1874). If there are reasons of public policy against the continued application of this equitable doctrine in the case of a patent, Congress has ready means of undoing that which has always been part of the patent law, as is true of other provisions which in its wisdom may call for change. This doctrine, voluminously applied in the Law Reports, has never been questioned by Congress in the successive enactments amending the patent law. Only very recently bills dealing with this subject have been introduced but have not yet been acted upon. See, e.g., H.R. 97 and H.R. 3462, 79th Cong., 1st Sess. (1945); H.R. 3874, 78th Cong., 1st Sess. (1943). The place for reconsidering the policy which this Court more than twenty years ago characterized as 'a rule well settled by forty-five years of judicial consideration', Westinghouse Co. v. Formica, supra, 266 U.S. at page 349, 45 S.Ct. at page 120, 69 L.Ed. 316, is the Congress. That forum is not confronted with the stark alternatives of either adhering to the rule or wiping it out, but has the wide range of legislative discretion in considering what is good and what is bad in the rule and fashioning legislation appropriate to the diversified aspects of the problem.

The Court professes neither to reject, nor to adhere to, the equitable principle of fair dealing reaffirmed by the Formica case. It finds ground for avoiding what seem to me to be inescapable alternatives by the claim that the assignor here purported to assign a patent which turns out to be invalid because it now appears that it was based on an earlier expired patent. Since an expired patent makes it part of the public domain, the assignor, although he had sold what need not have been bought, could enter the domain like the rest of the public. So goes the argument. But this, I submit with all respect, is to throw out the baby with the bath. For it amounts to saying that the assignor in raising invalidity in a suit for infringement is just a part of the general public and can ask the Court to enforce every defense open to the rest of the public. The essence of the principle of fair dealing which binds the assignor of a patent in a suit by the assignee, even though it turns out that the patent is invalid or lacks novelty, is that in this relation the assignor is not part of the general public but is apart from the general public. The isolated, individual relation between assignor and assignee, due to the sale by the assignor of something which he afterwards should not be allowed to say was nothing, is the basis of the doctrine of fair dealing which operates against him and against nobody else. That doctrine is wholly consistent with the right of the general public to the free and unfettered use of a patent after its time has expired. It is suggested, also, that the public is harmed by removing the assignor from the ranks of actual or potential manufacturers of what is covered by the patent. But that is true of every case in which the assignor is barred from questioning the validity of his assignment. As against the loss to the public of one possible manufacturer is put the public policy of fair dealing between man and man. That is the meaning of the Formica doctrine. [1]

A machine that is not patentable because it is not novel is just as much part of the public domain as a machine on which the patent has expired. If public policy does not preclude an individual from being held to a fair bargain with another when he purported to sell as a patent what in fact was never patentable, what is there in reason-for there is nothing in what Congress has said-that should preclude enforcement of a fair bargain whereby an individual agreed, in effect, not to compete with another regarding a machine which turns out not to have been patentable because it represented an expired patent open to all the rest of the world? Of course, parties cannot by agreement defeat an explicit provision or purpose of legislation. One shipper cannot, for instance, secure the private advantage of a lower rate when the Interstate Commerce Act provides for equality of rates among shippers, Pettsburgh, etc., Ry. Co. v. Fink, 250 U.S. 577, 40 S.Ct. 27, 63 L.Ed. 1151; nor can an employer defeat the protective purpose of the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C.A. § 201 et seq., setting minimum wage limits, by an agreement based on the inequality of bargaining power between employers and individual employees, Brooklyn Savings Bank v. O'Neill, 324 U.S. 697, 706, 65 S.Ct. 895, 902. There is nothing comparable to such situations in the language or purpose of the patent laws ragarding assignment of patents. On the contrary, as we have seen, the principle whereby an assignor is held to his bargain with the assignee has been part of the texture of our patent law throughout its history. Congress in its successive enactments modifying the patent law has respected this principle and left it untouched. [2]

Happily law is not so divorced from ethical standards that a hitherto unquestioned principle of fair dealing should be deemed hostile to any branch of the law. But if the principle of fair dealing as between the assignor and the assignee of a patent that has for so long been part of the patent law is to be repudiated judicially, it is better to do so explicitly, not by circumlocution.

Notes[edit]

^1  The complicated facts in the Formica case have somewhat obscured the true scope and meaning of that decision. What was decided is perhaps best disclosed in the lower court's opinion which was here affirmed. That opinion was by Judge Denison who spoke with special authority on patent law: 'It may be granted that these two claims (in controversy) were properly readable upon the specifications and drawings of the application signed by O'Connor (the assignor)-that is to say, in the language of the Patent Office, that he had the right to make these claims. Nevertheless they expressed a conception of the invention, which rested solely on the 'nonplaniform' shape of the article and was in this respect broader than any claim which O'Connor had drafted, and if the prior Baekeland patent had been known to O'Connor, as it became known to his assignees when it later compelled them to abandon the original broad claims, he probably never would have claimed as his the invention thus formulated. The record does not support the inference that O'Connor either expressly or impliedly represented to the Westinghouse Company (the assignee) that he was the inventor of the process defined in these two claims, and hence the claim of estoppel must fail.' 6 Cir., 288 F. 330, 334.

^2  Nor can the assignor of an expired patent, when the assignee seeks to hold him to his bargain, invoke the law condemning contracts in restraint of trade. So far as the hitherto recognized principle of fair dealing between an assignor and his assignee unduly restrains the freedom of action of the assignor, it merely restrains in the manner that every contract is a restraint of trade. See Chicago Board of Trade v. United States, 246 U.S. 231, 238, 38 S.Ct. 242, 244, 62 L.Ed. 683. And it restrains equally whether what is assigned is an expired patent or something that never was a patent. In fact, however, the doctrine of such fair dealing does not run counter to the considerations by which the laws outlaws restraints which persons may impose on themselves by contract. For such an implied restraint as is found in the assignment of a patent, purportedly valid but in fact invalid, like all reasonable restraints, does not offend the objections to unreasonable restraints. The underlying rationale of the law against unreasonable restraints is twofold. The first of these reasons is that the law will not lend its aid in the enforcement of a contract by means of which a man may deprive himself of the possibility of earning a livelihood and deprive the public of the 'benefit of his labor.' The second, 'that such restraints tended to give * * * the beneficiary of such restraints, a monopoly of the trade, from which he had thus excluded one competitor, and by the same means might exclude others.' Taft, J., in United States v. Addyston Pipe & Steel Co., 6 Cir., 85 F. 271, 279, 46 L.R.A. 122, modified, 175 U.S. 211, 20 S.Ct. 96, 44 L.Ed. 136. Neither consideration is pertinent here.

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).