326 U.S. 249 (1945), 54, Scott Paper Co. v. Marcalus Manufacturing Co., Inc.

Docket Nº:No. 54
Citation:326 U.S. 249, 66 S.Ct. 101, 90 L.Ed. 47
Party Name:Scott Paper Co. v. Marcalus Manufacturing Co., Inc.
Case Date:November 13, 1945
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 249

326 U.S. 249 (1945)

66 S.Ct. 101, 90 L.Ed. 47

Scott Paper Co.


Marcalus Manufacturing Co., Inc.

No. 54

United States Supreme Court

Nov. 13, 1945

Argued October 17, 1945




1. The nature and extent of the legal consequences of the expiration of a patent are federal questions, the answers to which are to be derived from the patent laws and the policies which they adopt. P. 255.

2. An assignor of a patent is not estopped by virtue of his assignment to defend a suit for infringement of the assigned patent on the ground that the alleged infringing device is that of a prior art expired patent. Westinghouse Co. v. Formica Co., 266 U.S. 342, distinguished. Pp. 250, 257.

3. The application of the doctrine of estoppel so as to foreclose the assignor of a patent from asserting the right to make use of the prior art invention of an expired patent which anticipates that of the assigned patent is inconsistent with the patent laws, which dedicate to public use the invention of an expired patent. P. 257.

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4. The patent laws do not contemplate that anyone, by contract or any form of private arrangement, may withhold from the public the use of the invention of an expired patent, the public right to the enjoyment of which has been secured by the grant of a monopoly of the patented invention for a limited time. P. 256.

147 F.2d 608 affirmed.

STONE, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this patent infringement suit, the question is whether the assignor of a patent is estopped by virtue of his assignment to defend a suit for infringement of the assigned patent on the ground that the alleged infringing device is that of a prior art expired patent.

Automatic Paper Machinery Company, Inc., petitioner's assignor, acquired by assignment, from respondent Marcalus, Patent No. 1,843,429 of February 2, 1932, issued on the application of Marcalus for "a method and machine for mounting a cutting strip of a hard nonmetallic substance on an edge of a box blank." The patent describes and claims a method, and a machine for employing it, whereby, in substantially one operation, indurated paper is drawn from a roll and brought into overlapping relationship with the edge of a box blank, when a strip of the paper is automatically cut off and glued to the box blank in such position that its longitudinal edge projects beyond the edge of the box blank. The box thus equipped with the cutting edge of the strip is useful as a dispensing container for rolled wax paper which, as drawn from the roll, may be cut in any desired lengths by drawing it across the

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cutting edge at an angle with the plane of the cutter. Marcalus, while an officer and employee of petitioner, made the patented invention and assigned his patent application to petitioner for a valuable consideration. The patent issued on the application as filed, without amendment, after which Marcalus severed his connection with petitioner and organized respondent company, which he controls, and which, like petitioner, is engaged in producing and selling box blanks having a cutting edge.

In the present suit, brought by petitioner for infringement of the assigned patent, respondents defended on the ground that their accused machine is a copy of that of the expired prior art patent issued to Inman in 1912. The District Court gave judgment for petitioner, 54 F.Supp. 105, holding that, inasmuch as respondents were estopped by Marcalus' assignment of the patent to show its validity, they could not, by recourse to the prior art to show noninfringement, accomplish the same result by indirection. The Court of Appeals reversed, 147 F.2d 608, holding that the prior art may be resorted to by the assignor to measure the extent of anticipation for the purpose of limiting the claims of the assigned patent, and thus avoid infringement. Because of the identity patent-wise of the Inman Patent with the assigned patent and with the accused device, the court held that the claims of the assigned patent were limited to naught, and hence that there could be no infringement.

To sustain its right to enjoin infringement by the assignor of a patented invention anticipated by a prior art patent, petitioner relies on the doctrine of estoppel as applied to the assignor of a patent for value. Its basic principle is said to be one of good faith -- that one who has sold his invention may not, to the detriment of the purchaser, deny the existence of that which he has sold. See Westinghouse E. & Mfg. Co. v. Formica Insulation Co., 288 F. 330, 333. The rule, as stated by this Court in the Westinghouse Co. v. Formica

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Co., 266 U.S. 342, 349, is

that an assignor of a patent right is estopped to attack the utility, novelty, or validity of a patented invention which he has assigned or granted as against anyone claiming the right under his assignment or grant. As to the rest of the world, the patent may have no efficacy and create no right of monopoly, but the assignor cannot be heard to question the right of his assignee to exclude him from its use. Curran v. Burdsall, 20 F. 835; Ball & Socket Fastener Co. v. Ball Glove Fastening Co., 58 F. 818; Woodward v. Boston Lasting Machine Co., 60 F. 283, 284; Babcock v. Clarkson, 63 F. 607; Noonan v. Chester Park Athletic Co., 99 F. 90, 91.

[66 S.Ct. 103] Respondents, denying that the doctrine of estoppel can rightly be applied to patent assignments, also insist that the present case is not within the scope of the doctrine. Compare Buckingham Products Co. v. McAleer Mfg. Co., 108 F.2d 192, with Casco Products Corp. v. Sinko Tool & Mfg. Co., 116 F.2d 119. Both parties rely on the decision of this Court in the Formica case, supra, which, although stating that the assignor cannot deny the novelty and validity of the assigned patented invention, nevertheless held that the claims of a patent may be narrowed by reference to the prior art so as to restrict them to so much of the invention described by the specifications as is not exhibited by the prior art. Klein v. Russell, 19 Wall. 433, 466-467; Garneau v. Dozier, 102 U.S. 230; Wollensak v. Reiher, 115 U.S. 87; Beidler v. United States, 253 U.S. 447; Mackay Co. v. Radio Corp, 306 U.S. 86, 94. Cf. Hocking v. Hocking, 4 R.P.C. 255, 434, 6 R.P.C. 69; Clark v. Adie, 2 App.Cas. 423; Crosthwaite v. Steel, 6 R.P.C.190.

This Court, in the Formica case, passing the question, not present here, whether the estoppel of the assignor extends to claims added by the assignee to the application in the Patent Office, held that the estoppel did not, in any

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event, preclude the assignor charged as an infringer from narrowing or qualifying their construction by reference to the prior art, saying, 266 U.S. at 351: "The distinction may be a nice one but seems to be workable." It accordingly, by reference to the prior art, interpreted the claims by narrowing them to a two-step process, shown by the specifications, which the court found to be the assignor's advance over the prior art, but which was not in terms embodied in the claims. The Court thus sustained the defense of noninfringement by restricting the claims by reference to the prior art and by holding in effect that the invention assigned was not as broad in scope as the claims would otherwise on their face define it to be.

Petitioner, pointing to the logical embarrassment in applying a doctrine which forbids the assignor to deny validity of the patented invention for want of novelty, but nevertheless allows him to narrow its scope by reference to the prior art in order to save his accused device from infringement, insists that the court below has resorted to the prior art not for the purpose of narrowing the claims and distinguishing from the prior art something which the assignor invented, but for the purpose of destroying the claims because anticipated. This is said to be precisely the same, in purpose and effect, as to deny invention for want of novelty. It is urged that the permission thus given to respondent assignor to show want of novelty which he is estopped to deny is to disregard the estoppel by which, by hypothesis, he is bound.

Respondents, on the other hand, insist that a literal application of the rule of the Formica case limits the claims of the assigned patent to a structure having certain minor mechanical additions made by Marcalus to the machine of the Inman patent which respondents copied by their accused device. These additions, it is conceded, may not involve invention, but, if so, it is said, respondents are estopped to assert it. And, applying the rule of the

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Formica case, they urge that the claims of the patent may nevertheless be narrowed to a machine embodying the additional Minor features not found in the Inman machine, and infringement may thus be avoided.

But, in the circumstances of this case, we find it unnecessary to pursue these logical refinements or to determine whether, as respondent asks, the doctrine of estoppel by patent assignment as stated by the Formica case should be rejected. To whatever extent that doctrine may be deemed to have survived the Formica decision or to be restricted by it, we think that case is not controlling here. For other considerations are dispositive of this case, in which, unlike Formica, the accused machine is precisely that of an expired patent. Neither in that case nor in any other, so far as we are advised, was the doctrine of estoppel applied so as to penalize the use of the invention of an expired patent. That, we think, is foreclosed by the patent laws themselves.

Revised Statutes, §§ 4886, 4884 as amended, 35 U.S.C. §§ 31, 40, provide for the grant of a patent for a term of seventeen years to any person who has invented a "new and useful art, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter." The grant is...

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