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Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

75 U.S. 420

Blanchard  v.  Putnam

Damages for the infringement of letters patent may be recovered by the patentee, or by his assignee of the whole interest, or by his grantee of the exclusive right within and throughout any specified district, by a suit in equity or by an action on the case, at the election of the holder of the legal title. [1]

Letters patent were granted to Thomas Blanchard, December 18th, 1849, for a new and useful improvement in bending wood, for and during the term of fourteen years from that date, but the specification being imperfect, on the fifteenth of November, 1859, he surrendered the patent, and the same was reissued to him, with an amended specification, for the residue of the original term.

Granted for the term of fourteen years only, the patent expired on the seventeenth of December, 1863, but the patentee having failed to obtain from the use and sale of his invention a reasonable remuneration for the time, ingenuity, and expense bestowed upon the same and the introduction thereof into use, the Commissioner of Patents renewed and extended the patent for the term of seven years from and after the expiration of the first term, giving it the same effect as if it had originally been granted for twenty-one years. Subsequent to the extension of the term the patentee deceased, and the patent was reissued to his executrix, from whom the plaintiffs derive title by virtue of an assignment in due form, as is conclusively admitted by the defendants.

Undoubted owners of the title to the patent the plaintiffs, on the twenty-third of November, 1865, instituted this suit, and the charge is that the defendants, on the second of November of the previous year, and on divers other days and times between that day and the commencement of the suit, infringed the exclusive right to the invention vested in the plaintiffs, by constructing and using ten machines for bending wood in imitation of the plaintiffs' invention, and in violation of the exclusive right secured to them in their letters patent. Process was issued, and being duly served the defendants appeared and pleaded the general issue, and upon that issue, unaccompanied by any notice to the plaintiffs of any special defence, the parties went to trial, and the verdict and judgment were for the defendants.

Exceptions were duly taken by the plaintiffs to certain rulings of the court in admitting evidence offered by the defendants, and to the instructions of the court, as given to the jury, and the only questions presented for decision are such as are involved in the exceptions to those rulings and instructions.

On the trial of the cause the plaintiffs, to sustain the issue on their part, introduced in evidence the reissued patent on which the suit was founded, together with the original patent and the certificate of renewal and extension; and having proved the assignment and introduced evidence tending to prove that the defendants had infringed the reissued patent, as alleged in the declaration, rested their case.

They might well rest in that state of the case, as the letters patent afforded prim a facie evidence that the patentee under whom they claimed was the original and first inventor of what is therein described as his improvement, and having introduced evidence tending to show infringement and damage, they were entitled to a verdict unless some evidence was introduced by the defendants to rebut the evidence given to prove infringement, or to establish some valid defence to the cause of action set forth in the declaration.

Influenced doubtless by that view of the case, the defendants offered in evidence the reissued patent granted to one John C. Morris, dated May 27, 1862, as the foundation for the introduction of evidence to show that the machine or machines which they were using were constructed by them under a license from the patentee in that patent, and in accordance with the specification and claims of that patent as reissued. Seasonable objection was made by the plaintiffs to the introduction of that patent, as evidence in the case, but the court overruled the objection and admitted it in evidence, and the plaintiffs excepted.

Such evidence was inadmissible for the purpose for which it was offered, and should have been excluded, as the novelty of the invention was no open, and because it presented on the question of infringement an immaterial issue not involved in the pleadings, and because the evidence was well calculated to mislead the jury by withdrawing their attention from the real subject-matter in controversy. [2]

Apart from the question of damages two issues only were presented by the pleadings, and they were all which are involved in any similar case:

1. Whether the patentee in the patent on which the suit is founded is the original and first inventor of the alleged improvement, which the plaintiffs in this case established as a prim a facie presumption when they introduced in evidence the letters patent described in the declaration. [3]

2. Whether the machine of the defendants infringes the plaintiffs' machine as described in the specification and claims of their letters patent.

Attempts are often made in the trial of patent cases to introduce such collateral issues on the question of infringement, but they are irregular and cannot be sanctioned, as the only proper comparison, on that issue, is of the defendants machine with that of the plaintiff, as prescribed in the pleadings. What the jury have to determine is, does the machine of the defendant infringe the machine of the plaintiff; and if it does not, then the defendant is entitled to a verdict; but if it does infringe the plaintiff's machine, then the plaintiff is entitled to his remedy, and it is no answer to the cause of action to plead or prove that the defendant is the licensee of the owner of another patent, and that his machine is constructed in accordance with that patent.

Controversies between litigants in court cannot be completed in that way, nor should the plaintiff be subjected to such outside issues, as he is clearly entitled to a verdict when he has proved that he is the original and first inventor of his improvement, and that the defendant has infringed his patent. [4]

Suppose the rule in that respect is otherwise, still the judgment of the Circuit Court must be reversed, as the next exception to be considered is clearly well taken, and the error of the court is of such a character that it cannot be remedied in any other way than by granting a new trial.

Testimony was offered by the defendants to prove the existence and use, in 1858, at Grand Detour, in the State of Illinois, of a machine for bending plough handles, similar to a model shown to the witness under examination, and which, as is claimed by the defendants, was the same in its mode of operation as the patented machine of the plaintiffs.

Objection was seasonably made by the plaintiffs to the admissibility of the testimony, but the defendants stating that they expected to connect the same with the other testimony showing that the machine was in public use anterior to the invention described in the plaintiffs' patent, the court overruled the objection and admitted the testimony, and the bill of exceptions shows that other testimony was introduced by the defendants tending to prove that the machine described by the witness, or others like it, were in public use at that place before the date of the invention claimed and owned by the plaintiffs.

Evidence to prove such a defence is not admissible in any case without an antecedent compliance with the conditions specified in the fifteenth section of the Patent Act. Whenever the defendant relies in his defence on the fact of a previous invention, knowledge, or use of the thing patented, 'he shall state, in his notice of special matter, the names and places of residence of those whom he intends to prove to have possessed a prior knowledge of the thing, and where the same had been used,' and if he does not comply with that requirement no such evidence can be received under the general issue. [5]

Unless the rule of law was so the plaintiff might often be surprised at the trial, as he would rely upon the presumption which the patent affords, that he or his assignor or grantor was the original and first inventor of the improvement in question, and would not think it necessary to summon witnesses to rebut the evidence introduced by the defendant attacking the novelty of his patent. [6]

Other exceptions to the rulings of the court were taken by the plaintiffs to the same effect, but it is unnecessary to refer to them, as the charge of the court shows to a demonstration, that the court throughout the trial overlooked the fact that such evidence is not admissible in patent cases, unless it appears that the defendant, thirty days before the trial, gave notice in writing to the plaintiff, or his attorney, of his intention to give such special matter in evidence, as required in the fifteenth section of the Patent Act, and that the notice given constituted a compliance with the several conditions therein specified.

Compliance with that provision being a condition precedent to the right of the defendant to introduce such evidence, under the general issue, it necessarily follows that the onus probandi is on him to show that the required notice was given to the plaintiff thirty days before the trial, and if he fails to do so he cannot introduce any evidence to controvert the novelty of the patent. [7]

Undoubtedly the plea of not guilty puts in issue the novelty of the invention as well as the charge of infringement, but the answer to that suggestion, as applied to this case, is that the letters patent, when introduced by the plaintiffs, afforded a prim a facie presumption that the assignor of the plaintiffs was the original and first inventor of the improvement, and as the defendants had not given to the plaintiffs the required notice that they intended to offer evidence at the trial to overcome that presumption, they had no right to introduce any such evidence, and it necessarily follows that the court had no right to submit any such question to the jury.

Two defences, said the court, are interposed by the defendants: (1.) That the patent is void for the want of novelty. (2.) That the machine constructed and used by the defendants does not infringe the patented machine of the plaintiffs; and the charge proceeds throughout upon the ground that both of those defences were open and were to be determined by the jury.

Extended remarks were made by the judge to the jury, upon the evidence produced by the defendants to impeach the novelty of the invention, and very full explanations were given to them in respect to the principles of law by which they were to be governed in determining that question. Most of the rules of law as stated by the judge are correct, but the difficulty is that no such questions were involved in the pleadings.



^1  5 Stat. at Large, 123, 124.

^2  Corning et al. v. Burden, 15 Howard, 271.

^3  Curtis on Patents, § 118; Pitts v. Hall, 2 Blatchford, 229; Cahoon v. Ring, 1 Clifford, 625.

^4  Curtis on Patents, §§ 350, 353; Carver v. Manuf. Co., 2 Story, 432.

^5  5 Stat. at Large, 123; Teese v. Huntingdon, 23 Howard, 10.

^6  Agawam Co. v. Jordan, 7 Wallace, 596.

^7  Philadelphia and Trenton Railroad Co. v. Stimpson, 14 Peters, 459; Silsby v. Foote, 14 Howard, 222; Phillips v. Page, 24 Id. 168.

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).