Commissioner of Patents v. Whiteley

Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

71 U.S. 522

Commissioner of Patents  v.  Whiteley

ERROR to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.

Whiteley, the defendant in error, was the assignee of a sectional interest in a patent granted to Hains, on the 4th of September, 1855, for an improvement in mowing machines. He held, by virtue of several assignments, all the territory embraced in the patent, except the State of Ohio and the northern half of the State of Illinois; and in all the territory, except as just mentioned, was assignee of all the rights of the patentee.

In 1863, he applied to the commissioner of patents for a reissue of the patent, according to the thirteenth section of the Patent Act of 1836; a section which enacts that--'Whenever any patent, &c., shall be inoperative or invalid, by reason of a defective or insufficient description or specification, &c., if the error has or shall have arisen by inadvertency, accident, or mistake, &c., it shall be lawful for the commissioner, upon the surrender to him of such patent, &c., to cause a new patent to be issued to the said inventor for the same invention, for the residue of the period then unexpired for which the original patent was granted, in accordance with the patentee's corrected description and specification. And in case of his death, or any assignment by him made of the original patent, a similar right shall vest in his executors, administrators, or assignees.'

The assignees for the State of Ohio, and of the northern half of Illinois, did not join in the application.

The commissioner of patents, after a laborious investigation of the law and comparison of various sections of the patent acts, decided that the applicant, not being the assignee of the whole interest in the patent, was not entitled to the reissue asked for.

Whiteley took no appeal from the commissioner's decision to the 'board of examiners,' but setting forth that his application for reissue was filed with the acting commissioner, and the refusal, petitioned the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia for a mandamus to send the application to an examiner to be acted upon by him as though made by the patentee.'

The commissioner, in reply-premising that for the reason that the proposed applicant was not such an assignee as the law contemplates, and that the application, therefore, was not filed, or entered upon the books of the office, and never had been, and that the fees required on such application, which had been paid by the relator to the chief clerk of the office, on the presentation of said application, had not been placed to the credit of the patent fund, but remain in the hands of the chief clerk, personally, and subject to the order of the relator-replied, among other reasons, against the mandamus:

1. That the object of it was to carry by appeal a preliminary question solely cognizable by him, to the Supreme Court of the District, and that such a mandamus would be nugatory.

2. That he had decided rightly in rejecting the application, the relator not coming within the meaning of the term 'assignee,' as contemplated in the thirteenth section of the act of 1836. And in support of this view he submitted as part of his answer a full law argument, which now came up in the record.

The Supreme Court of the District granted the mandamus, 'commanding the commissioner of patents to refer said application to the proper examiner, or otherwise examine or cause the same to be examined according to law.' The case was now here on writ of error, brought by the commissioner of patents, to remove the proceeding to this court. Two principal questions were raised:

1. Supposing the decision of the commissioner to have been erroneous, and that the assignee of a sectional interest in a patent was entitled to a reissue, did a mandamus such as that above mentioned lie to correct the decision?

2. Did the commissioner, in deciding as he did, that the applicant as owner of but a sectional interest was not entitled to a reissue, decide correctly?

In order to judge of the first question it is necessary to state—

1. That the Patent Act of 1836, by its seventh section, provides that on the filing of any application for a patent, 'the commissioner shall make or cause to be made an examination of the alleged new invention or discovery,' and if on such examination it does not appear that the same had been invented or discovered by any other person, &c., he shall issue the patent. But if, on the contrary, he shall decide that the applicant was not the original and first inventor, &c., and the applicant shall insist on his claim, 'such applicant may on appeal have the decision of a board of examiners to be composed of three disinterested persons who shall be appointed by the Secretary of State for that purpose,' which board shall have power 'to reverse the decision of the commissioner, either in whole or in part.'

2. That by an act of 1837, in addition to the former act, it is provided that in cases of application to the commissioner for re-issue, the applicant, if dissatisfied with the decision of that officer, 'shall have the same remedy and be entitled to the same privileges and proceedings as are provided by law in the case of original applications.'

Mr. Foote, for the plaintiff in error, contended:

On the first point. That if the decision was erroneous it could not be corrected in the manner in which the relator had proceeded. The commissioner had already done just that thing which the writ commanded him to do. He had examined the matter very fully, and the proof of this was in the document found in the record as the chief reply to the application for the mandamus granted. The remedy was appeal.

On the second point. The decision of the commissioner was believed by him to be correct; but that officer had no personal interest in the questions. All that he wished was that it should be settled by this court. Similar questions frequently arose in the Patent Office, and it was important to the public interest that the statute should receive an authoritative construction.

He conceded that an extension of the act to assignees of sectional interests would be very convenient to them. That the necessity of a reissue might be as great to them as to the owner of the whole interest. Indeed that their rights might be impaired and even lost for want of such a power.

But there were serious objections to such a construction of the statute.

1st. It might lead to as many different patents for the same invention as the patentee should grant sectional interests in it.

2d. Upon a reissue the original patent must be surrendered.

In Moffatt v. Garr, [1] this court held that a surrender of the patent to the commissioner in judgment of law extinguishes the patent. It is a legal cancellation of it; and hence can no more be a foundation for a right after the surrender than could an act of Congress which had been repealed. If the patent be cancelled by one assignee, how could a suit be maintained upon it by another who had not joined in the reissue? Or if the sectional assignee did not happen to possess the patent, how could he surrender it to be cancelled?

3d. The omission in the thirteenth section of the act to mention the grantees of sectional interests, as would be seen on reference to it that the act does in other sections, in connection with the requirement of a surrender of the patent, would seem to imply that it was not the intention of the act to extend its provisions beyond the patentee and the assignee of the whole interest.

Messrs. Coombs and Fisher, contra.

So far as it was possible, Whiteley complied with all the forms and requirements of the law. The case, therefore, presents general questions of right applicable to many cases.

I. Has the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia jurisdiction and power to grant and enforce a 'wirt of mandamus' commanding the commissioner of patents to do an act enjoined by law?

The writ is a remedial writ, issuing out of the King's Bench, or other highest court of original jurisdiction; it commands the party to whom it is directed to do his duty, and summarily enforces its command by attachment; and it is the appropriate remedy where the law has prescribed no specific remedy, and where justice and good government require one. It is based upon the principle, that there should be a remedy to enforce every right. Without such writ, of such general application, and of such power in terrorem, the frequent failure of justice would be intolerable. Nowhere in the country is there so great need of the wirt of mandamus as in the District of Columbia, where all the great departments of the general government have their offices, and where the rights of the people are so liable to infringement.

In Griffith v. Cochran, [2] a rule was granted upon Cochran, Secretary of the Land Office, 'commanding him to prepare and deliver patents to Griffith' for certain tracts of land. The court said:

'Where a ministerial act is to be done, and there is no other specific remedy, a mandamus will be granted to do the act which is required; but where the complaint is against a person who acts in a judicial or deliberative capacity, he may be ordered by mandamus to proceed to do his duty, by deciding according to the best of his judgment, but the court will not direct him in what manner to decide. This was the principle adopted by the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of United States v. Lawrence, [3] and it has been frequently recognized by this court. If the secretary had in this case refused to make any calculation, or take any step whereby the business of the applicant might be despatched, it would certainly have been our duty to compel him by mandamus.'

In Kendall v. United States, [4] in this court-the leading authority upon the question,-the court said:

'Congress has entire control over the District for every purpose of government; and it is reasonable to suppose that, in organizing a judicial department here, all judicial power necessary for the purposes of government would be vested in the courts of justice. The Circuit Court here is the highest court of original jurisdiction; and if the power to issue a mandamus in a case like the present exists anywhere, it is vested in that court.'

In Decatur v. Paulding, [5] Taney, C. J., in delivering the opinion of the court, said:


^1  1 Black, 273.

^2  5 Binney, 103-105.

^3  3 Dallas, 42.

^4  12 Peters, 524.

^5  14 Id. 515.

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).