Gayler v. Wilder/Dissent McLean

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Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinions

United States Supreme Court

51 U.S. 477

Gayler  v.  Wilder

Mr. Justice McLEAN.

I dissent from the opinion of a majority of the judges in this case. The point of difference, I think, is essential to the maintenance of the rights of the public and also of inventors.

It was proved by James Conner, as appears from the bill of exceptions, 'that between 1829 and 1832 he was engaged in business as a stereotype founder, and knowing that plaster of Paris was a non-conductor of heat, he constructed a safe with a double chest, and filled the space between the inner and outer one with plaster of Paris; the same, substantially, as testified to and claimed by Fitzgerald, except there was no plaster used on the top of the safe. It was made for his own private use in his establishment, and was used by him as a safe from the time it was made till 1838, when it passed into other hands. It was kept in the counting-room while he used it, and was known to the persons working in the foundery.' This evidence was confirmed by another witness.

By the sixth section of the patent act of 1836, it is provided, 'that any person or persons having discovered or invented any new or useful art, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new or useful improvement on any art, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, not known or used by others before his or their discovery or invention thereof,' may apply for a patent, &c. The applicant is required to 'make oath or affirmation that he does verily believe that he is the original and first inventor,' &c., 'and that he does not know or believe that the same was ever before known or used.'

The seventh section authorizes and requires the Commissioner of Patents 'to make or cause to be made an examination of the alleged new invention or discovery; and if on such examination it shall not appear to the Commissioner that the same had been invented or discovered by any other person in this country prior to the alleged invention or discovery thereof by the applicant, or that it had been patented or described in any printed publication in this or any foreign country,' &c., the Commissioner may grant a patent.

In the fifteenth section it is provided, 'that whenever it shall satisfactorily appear that the patentee, at the time of making his application for the patent, believed himself to be the first inventor or discoverer of the thing patented, the same shall not be held to be void on account of the invention or discovery, or any part thereof, having before been known or used in any foreign country, it not appearing that the same or any substantial part thereof had before been patented or described in any printed publication.'

From the above extracts, it is seen that the patentee must be the inventor of the machine, or the improvement of it, or he can have no right. If the thing was known or used by others, he cannot claim a patent. Or if it was patented in a foreign country, or described in any publication at home or in any foreign country, he has no right to a patent. To this there is only the exception in the fifteenth section above cited. But this can have no influence in the present case.

Let these provisions of the statute be compared with the last two paragraphs of the charge of the court, as stated in the third exception:--

'And said court further instructed the jury, that if they found that the use made by James Conner of plaster of Paris was confined to a single iron chest, made for his own private use after said Fitzgerald's discovery and experiments, then it was not in the way of Fitzgerald's patent, and the same was valid; but if the jury found that said James Conner made his said safe, as claimed, and tested it by experiments, before Fitzgerald's invention and improvements, and before he tested the same, then said Fitzgerald was not the first inventor, as claimed, and was not entitled to said patent.'

This charge stands disconnected with any other facts in the case, except those named, and, in my judgment, it is erroneous. If Conner's safe were identical with Fitzgerald's, and though it was of prior invention, yet if it were not tested by experiments before Fitzgerald's improvement, and before he tested the same, the jury under the instruction were bound to find for Fitzgerald. And the case was thus made to turn, not on the priority of invention only, but upon that and the fact of its having been tested by experiments. This introduces a new principle into the patent law. The right under the law depends upon the time of the invention. An experimental test may show the value of the thing invented, but it is no part of the invention.

'The court further charged, that, independently of these considerations, there was another view of the case, as it respected the Conner safe; that it was a question whether the use of it by him had been such as would prevent another inventor from taking out a patent; that if Conner had not made his discovery public, but had used it simply for his own private purpose, and it had been finally forgotten or abandoned, such a discovery and use would be no obstacle to the taking out of a patent by Fitzgerald, or those claiming under him, if he be an original, though not the first, inventor or discoverer of the improvement.'

If there be anything clear in the patent law, it is that the original inventor means the first inventor, subject only to the provision tated in the fifteenth section. This instruction presupposes that the safes are the same in principle. Now, if the invention was patented abroad, or was described in a foreign publication, both of which were unknown to the inventor in this country, still his patent is void. So it is void, if such invention has been known to any person in this country. The instruction says, if Conner's invention 'had been forgotten or abandoned,' it was no obstacle to Fitzgerald's right. Can a thing be forgotten or abandoned that was never known? If known before Fitzgerald's invention, it is fatal to it. By whom must it have been forgotten? By the inventor, or the public, or both? And how must it have been abandoned? When an invention is abandoned, it is said to be given up to the public, and this is the sense in which the term abandonment is used in the patent law. Such an abandonment would be fatal to the right of Fitzgerald.

Conner's safe, as appears from the bill of exceptions, was used in his counting-house, being accessible to every one, some six or eight years. In 1838 it passed into other hands; but into whose hands it does not appear. In 1843, Fitzgerald obtained his patent. How long before that he made experiments to test the invention is not proved. At most, the time must have been less than five years. This is a short period on which to found a presumption of forgetfulness. The law authorizes no such presumption. It can never become the law. It is not founded on probability or reason. The question is, Was Conner's invention prior to that of Fitzgerald? That it was of older date by some ten or twelve years is proved. And the instruction, it must be observed, was founded on the supposition that both inventions were similar.

The instruction seems to attach great importance to the fact that Conner's safe was used only for his private purpose. This is of no importance. The invention is the question, and not the manner in which the inventor used it. The safe was constructed at the foundery, and must have been known to the hands there employed. How can it be ascertained that Fitzgerald was not informed by some of these hands of the structure of Conner's safe, or by some one of the many hundreds who had seen it in his counting-house in the city of New York? It was to guard against this, which is rarely if ever susceptible of proof, that the act is express,-if the thing patented was known before, the patent is void. If the fact of this knowledge in any one be established, it is immaterial whether the patentee may have known it or not, it avoids his patent.

The law, on this subject, is not founded upon any supposed notions of equity. A foreign patent for the same thing, or a description of the thing in a foreign publication, is as effectual to avoid the patent as if the patentee had seen the prior invention. Notice to him is not important. The law is adopted on a settled public policy, which, while it is just to inventors, protects the rights of the public. Any other basis would open the door for endless frauds, by pretended inventors, without the probability of detection. And especially does this new doctrine of forgetfulness, or abandonment, used in any other sense than as recognized in the patent law, leaving such matters to a jury, overturn what I consider to be the settled law on this subject. Of the same character is the fact, that the invention was used for private purposes. A thing may be used in that way, and at the same time be public, as was the case with the Conner safe, and yet the jury are necessarily misled by such an instruction.

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).