No. 215.

186 U.S. 70 (1902)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided May 19, 1902.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Clark C. Wood, Mr. Edward Cahill and Mr. Henry J. Cookingham for plaintiff in error.

Mr. Edwin H. Risley for defendant in error.

MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM, after making the foregoing statement of facts, delivered the opinion of the court.

In this court we are concluded by the findings of fact made in a state court in a suit in equity, as well as in an action at law. Dower v. Richards, 151 U.S. 658, 666; Israel v. Arthur, 152 U.S. 355; Egan v. Hart, 165 U.S. 188; Hedrick v. Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company, 167 U.S. 673, 677.

The only Federal question raised in the record is as to the validity of contracts A and B, with regard to the act of Congress on the subject of trusts. Act of July 2, 1890, c. 647, 26 Stat. 209. That is a question of law, plainly raised in the record, and we are not precluded from its consideration by any action of the state courts. If, however, facts not found by the referee are necessary for the purpose of connecting those contracts with others not found in such report, we cannot supply the omission to find those facts. The contention of the defendant is that the two contracts A and B are in truth a part and continuation of the agreements set forth in the defendant's answer, and that taken together they prove a purpose and combination on the part of all the dealers in patented harrows to control their manufacture, sale and price in all portions of the United States, and defendant avers that such a contract or combination was and is void, not only as against public policy, but also because it is a violation of the Federal statute upon the subject of trusts and illegal combinations. Those former alleged contracts are not mentioned in the report of the referee excepting, as he stated, they had been declared void as against public policy, and as being in restraint of trade because they extended beyond the life of the patents therein mentioned, and the referee found that following this decision all of the contracts then in existence, which were affected thereby, were immediately cancelled by the parties thereto.

The referee made no finding of any fact connecting the contracts A and B with prior contracts of a like nature including other parties, as alleged in the answer of the defendant. The referee did find, however, that the defendant had no contract with the National Harrow Company until June 16 or 17, 1891, at which time several contracts were entered into between the plaintiff and the National Harrow Company of New York, and among other contracts the plaintiff executed and delivered assignments in writing of several United States letters patent and license rights and privileges under United States letters patent, all of which relate to the defendant's float spring tooth harrow business. He also found that such contracts constituted an absolute sale of the property and privileges thereby transferred, and that the defendant agreed to and did accept in payment thereof paid up capital stock of the plaintiff. He further found that the transaction between the assignor of the plaintiff and the defendant in June, 1891, was intended by the parties to be an absolute sale by the defendant to such assignor of the United States letters patent and licenses under such patents relating to the float spring tooth harrow business conducted by the defendant, and that it was founded upon a good, valuable and adequate consideration between the parties; that as a part of such consideration the assignor of the plaintiff granted and delivered to the defendant the license contracts A and B, heretofore spoken of, and that upon the consummation of the transaction the controversy over patents and infringements existing between the first six firms named in the referee's report and the defendant and its customers was settled. The report also decided "that the contract entered into in June, 1891, including the contracts A and B between the National Harrow Company of New York and this defendant were and are good and valid contracts, founded on adequate considerations and were reasonable in their provisions; contracts A and B imposing no restraints upon the defendant beyond those which the parties had a right, from the nature of the transaction, to impose and accept."

The omission of the referee to find from the evidence that the contracts A and B were a continuation of former contracts held to have been void, and that there were in fact other manufacturers of harrows who had entered into the same kind of contracts with plaintiff as those denominated A and B, and that there was a general combination among the dealers in patented harrows to regulate the sale and prices of such harrows, furnishes no ground for this court to assume such facts. The contracts A and B are to be judged by their own contents alone and construed accordingly.

The referee also decided that the plaintiff was a legal and valid corporation, authorized to enforce its rights in courts having jurisdiction, and that all the contracts in evidence were and are legal, valid and binding contracts, and such as might reasonably be made under the circumstances, and were founded upon a good, valuable and adequate consideration, and were reasonable in their provisions, and that they embodied no illegal restraints, and were not repugnant to any rule of public policy as in restraint of trade, and were not intended to create a monopoly, trust or illegal combination, and that the contracts entered into between the defendant and the National Harrow Company of New York, including the contracts A and B, are, and were, intended to be continuing contracts, and should be enforced according to their true intent and meaning as hereby interpreted.

When he speaks of all the contracts in evidence, the referee plainly means all the contracts in evidence between the parties to this action, for it was of such contracts only that he had been speaking. There were, in fact, other contracts than those designated A and B between these parties, and such other contracts had been put in evidence, and previously referred to by the referee. He, therefore, must have included what is termed the escrow agreement in his finding, that all the agreements made by defendant with the plaintiffs were valid. That agreement is set forth in the margin.1

There is no finding by the referee that this agreement was ever signed by any one other than the parties to this action, or that any other person received the licenses from and made contracts with the plaintiff similar to the ones entered into between these parties. All that the referee finds is, that all the contracts in evidence were legal, by which was meant, as already stated, all the contracts in evidence between the parties to the action, which were in existence and uncancelled. In the absence of any finding as to the escrow agreement having been signed by others, it must be regarded as unimportant, and we are brought back to the question whether these contracts or licenses, A and B, irrespective of any contracts not found by the referee as in any way connected with, or forming a part thereof, are void as a violation of the act of Congress.

The plaintiff contends in the first place that only the Attorney General of the United States can bring an action under the statute, excepting that by section 7 of the act any person injured in his business or property, as provided for therein, may himself sue in any Circuit Court of the United States, in the district in which the defendant resides or is found. Assuming that the plaintiff is right so far as regards any suit brought under that act, we are nevertheless of opinion that any one sued upon a contract may set up as a defence that it is a violation of the act of Congress, and if found to be so, that fact will constitute a good defence to the action.

The first section of the act provides that "every contract, combination in the form of trust, or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is hereby declared to be illegal." Every person making such a contract is deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction is to be punished by fine or by imprisonment, or both. As the statute makes the contract in itself illegal, no recovery can be had upon it when the defence of illegality is shown to the court. The act provides for the prevention of violations thereof, and makes it the duty of the several district attorneys, under the direction of the Attorney General, to institute proceedings in equity to prevent and restrain such violations, and it gives to any person injured in his business or property the right to sue, but that does not prevent a private individual when sued upon a contract which is void as in violation of the act from setting it up as a defence, and we think when proved it is a valid defence to any claim made under a contract thus denounced as illegal.

This brings us to a consideration of the terms of the license contracts for the purpose of determining whether they violate the act of Congress. The first important and most material fact in considering this question is that the agreements concern articles protected by letters patent of the Government of the United States. The plaintiff, according to the finding of the referee, was at the time when these licenses were executed the absolute owner of the letters patent relating to the float spring tooth harrow business. It was, therefore, the owner of a monopoly recognized by the Constitution and by the statutes of Congress. An owner of a patent has the right to sell it or to keep it; to manufacture the article himself or to license others to manufacture it; to sell such article himself or to authorize others to sell it. As stated by Mr. Justice Nelson, in Wilson v. Rousseau, 4 How. 646, 674, in speaking of a patent:

"The law has thus impressed upon it all the qualities and characteristics of property for the specified period; and has enabled him to hold and deal with it the same as in the case of any other description of property belonging to him, and on his death it passes, with his personal estate, to his legal representatives, and becomes part of the assets."

Again, as stated by Mr. Chief Justice Marshall, in Grant v. Raymond, 6 Pet. 218, 241:

"To promote the progress of useful arts, is the interest and policy of every enlightened government. It entered into the views of the framers of our Constitution, and the power `to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors, the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries,' is among those expressly given to Congress. This subject was among the first which followed the organization of our Government. It was taken up by the first Congress at its second session, and an act was passed authorizing a patent to be issued to the inventor of any useful art, etc., on his petition, `granting to such petitioner, his heirs, administrators or assigns, for any term not exceeding fourteen years, the sole and exclusive right and liberty of making, using and vending to others to be used, the said invention or discovery.' The law further declares that the patent `shall be good and available to the grantee or grantees by force of this act, to all and every intent and purpose herein contained.' The amendatory act of 1793 contains the same language, and it cannot be doubted that the settled purpose of the United States has ever been, and continues to be, to confer on the authors of useful inventions an exclusive right to their inventions for the time mentioned in their patent. It is the reward stipulated for the advantages derived by the public for the exertions of the individual, and is intended as a stimulus to those exertions. The laws which are passed to give effect to this purpose ought, we think, to be construed in the spirit in which they have been made; and to execute the contract fairly on the part of the United States, where the full benefit has been actually received: if this can be done without transcending the intention of the statute, or countenancing acts which are fraudulent or may prove mischievous. The public yields nothing which it has not agreed to yield; it receives all which it has contracted to receive. The full benefit of the discovery, after its enjoyment by the discoverer for fourteen years, is preserved; and for his exclusive enjoyment of it during that time the public faith is pledged."

In Heaton-Peninsular Company v. Eureka Specialty Company, 47 U.S. App. 146, 160, it is stated regarding a patentee:

"If he see fit, he may reserve to himself the exclusive use of his invention or discovery. If he will neither use his device nor permit others to use it, he has but suppressed his own. That the grant is made upon the reasonable expectation that he will either put his invention to practical use or permit others to avail themselves of it upon reasonable terms, is doubtless true. This expectation is based alone upon the supposition that the patentee's interest will induce him to use, or let others use, his invention. The public has retained no other security to enforce such expectations. A suppression can endure but for the life of the patent, and the disclosure he has made will enable all to enjoy the fruit of his genius. His title is exclusive, and so clearly within the constitutional provisions in respect of private property that he is neither bound to use his discovery himself nor permit others to use it. The dictum found in Hoe v. Knap, 17 Fed. Rep. 204, is not supported by reason or authority."

It is true that in certain circumstances the sale of articles manufactured under letters patent may be prevented when the use of such article may be subject, within the several States, to the control which they may respectively impose in the legitimate exercise of their powers over their purely domestic affairs, whether of internal commerce or of police regulation. Thus an improvement for burning oil, protected by letters patent of the United States, was condemned by the state inspector of Kentucky as unsafe for illuminating purposes under the statute requiring an inspection and imposing a penalty for the violation of the statute, and it was held that the enforcement of the statute was within the proper police powers of the State, and that it interfered with no right conferred by the letters patent. Patterson v. Kentucky, 97 U.S. 501.

There are decisions also in regard to telephone companies operating under licenses from patentees giving them the right to use their patents for the purpose of operating public telephone lines, but prohibiting companies from serving within such district any telephone company, and it has been held in the lower Federal courts that such a prohibition was of no force; that it was inconsistent with the grant, because a telephone company, being in the nature of a common carrier, was bound to render an equal service to all who applied and tendered the compensation fixed by law for the service; that while the patentees were under no obligation to license the use of their inventions by any public telephone company, yet, having done so, they were not at liberty to place restraints upon such a public corporation which would disable it to discharge all the duties imposed upon companies engaged in the discharge of duties subject to regulation by law. It could not be a public telephone company and could not exercise the franchise of a common carrier of messages with such exceptions to the grant. See Missouri ex rel. &c. v. Bell Telephone Company, 23 Fed. Rep. 539; State ex rel. &c. v. Delaware &c. Company, 47 Fed. Rep. 683; and Delaware & Atlantic &c. Company v. Delaware ex rel. &c., 3 U.S. App. 30.

These cases are cited in the opinion of the court in the case of Heaton-Peninsular Company v. Eureka Specialty Company, supra. Notwithstanding these exceptions, the general rule is absolute freedom in the use or sale of rights under the patent laws of the United States. The very object of these laws is monopoly, and the rule is, with few exceptions, that any conditions which are not in their very nature illegal with regard to this kind of property, imposed by the patentee and agreed to by the licensee for the right to manufacture or use or sell the article, will be upheld by the courts. The fact that the conditions in the contracts keep up the monopoly or fix prices does not render them illegal.

The contention that they do not affect interstate commerce, is not correct. We think the licenses do by their terms and by their plain meaning refer to, include and provide for interstate as well as other commerce. The contract called Exhibit B provides for the manufacture at Lansing, Michigan, and for the sale of the articles there made in territory lying south and west of Virginia and West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and the referee finds that a number of harrows have been sold under that contract. The contracts plainly look to the sale, and they also determine the price of the article sold, throughout the United States, as well as to the manufacture in the State of Michigan. As these contracts do, therefore, include interstate commerce within their provisions, we are brought back to the question whether the agreement between these parties with relation to these patented articles is valid within the act of Congress. It is true that it has been held by this court that the act included any restraint of commerce, whether reasonable or unreasonable. United States v. Trans-Missouri Freight Association, 166 U.S. 290; United States v. Joint Traffic Association, 171 U.S. 505; Addystone Pipe &c. Company v. United States, 175 U.S. 211. But that statute clearly does not refer to that kind of a restraint of interstate commerce which may arise from reasonable and legal conditions imposed upon the assignee or licensee of a patent by the owner thereof, restricting the terms upon which the article may be used and the price to be demanded therefor. Such a construction of the act we have no doubt was never contemplated by its framers.

United States v. E.C. Knight Company, 156 U.S. 1, does not bear upon the facts herein. That case related to a purchase of stock in manufacturing companies, by reason of which the purchaser secured control of a large majority of the manufactories of refined sugar in the United States. It was held by this court that the Federal act relating to trusts and combinations affecting interstate commerce could not reach and suppress the creation of a monopoly in regard to the refining of sugar, and that the manufacturing of a commodity bore no direct relation to commerce between the States or with foreign nations. It was said by Mr. Chief Justice Fuller, for the court, while speaking of such manufacture: "Nevertheless it does not follow that an attempt to monopolize, or the actual monopoly of, the manufacture was an attempt, whether executory or consummated, to monopolize commerce, even though, in order to dispose of the product, the instrumentality of commerce was necessarily invoked."

In these contracts provision is expressly made, not alone for manufacture, but for the sale of the manufactured product throughout the United States, and at prices which are particularly stated, and which the seller is not at liberty to decrease without the assent of the licensor. Addystone Pipe & Steel Company v. United States, 175 U.S. 211, 238. These contracts directly affected, not as a mere incident of manufacture, the sale of the implements all over the country, and the question arising is whether the contracts which thus affect such sales are void under the act of Congress.

On looking through these licenses we have been unable to find any conditions contained therein rendering the agreement void because of a violation of that act. There had been, as the referee finds, a large amount of litigation between the many parties claiming to own various patents covering these implements. Suits for infringements and for injunction had been frequent, and it was desirable to prevent them in the future. This execution of these contracts did in fact settle a large amount of litigation regarding the validity of many patents as found by the referee. This was a legitimate and desirable result in itself. The provision in regard to the price at which the licensee would sell the article manufactured under the license was also an appropriate and reasonable condition. It tended to keep up the price of the implements manufactured and sold, but that was only recognizing the nature of the property dealt in, and providing for its value so far as possible. This the parties were legally entitled to do. The owner of a patented article can, of course, charge such price as he may choose, and the owner of a patent may assign it or sell the right to manufacture and sell the article patented upon the condition that the assignee shall charge a certain amount for such article.

It is also objected that the agreement of the defendant not to manufacture or sell any other float spring tooth harrow, etc., than those which it had made under its patents before assigning them to the plaintiff, or which it was licensed to manufacture and make, under the terms of the license, except such other style and construction as it may be licensed to manufacture and sell by the plaintiff, is void under the act of Congress.

The plain purpose of the provision was to prevent the defendant from infringing upon the rights of others under other patents, and it had no purpose to stifle competition in the harrow business more than the patent provided for, nor was its purpose to prevent the licensee from attempting to make any improvement in harrows. It was a reasonable prohibition for the defendant, who would thus be excluded from making such harrows as were made by others who were engaged in manufacturing and selling other machines under other patents. It would be unreasonable to so construe the provision as to prevent defendant from using any letters patent legally obtained by it and not infringing patents owned by others. This was neither its purpose nor its meaning.

There is nothing which violates the act in the agreement that plaintiff would not license any other person than the defendant to manufacture or sell any harrow of the peculiar style and construction then used or sold by the defendant. It is a proper provision for the protection of the individual who is the licensee, and is nothing more in effect than an assignment or sale of the exclusive right to manufacture and vend the article. In brief, after a careful examination of these contracts, we are unable to find any provision in them, either taken separately or in connection with all the others therein contained, which would render the contracts between these parties void as in violation of the act of Congress.

It must, however, be conceded that the escrow agreement above set forth looks to the signing, by the parties mentioned therein, of contracts similar to those between the parties to this suit, designated A and B, and containing like conditions relating to the patents respectively, owned by such parties. But there is no finding by the referee that such contracts were in fact entered into by those other parties nor that they constituted a combination of most, if not all, of the persons or corporations engaged in the business concerning which the agreements between the parties to this suit were made. If such similar agreements had been made, and if, when executed, they would have formed an illegal combination within the act of Congress, we cannot presume for the purpose of reversing this judgment, in the absence of any finding to that effect, that they were made and became effective as an illegal combination. As between these parties, we hold that the agreements A and B actually entered into were not a violation of the act. We are not called upon to express an opinion upon a state of facts not found. Upon the facts found there is no error in the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and it must, therefore, be


MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, MR. JUSTICE GRAY and MR. JUSTICE WHITE did not hear the argument and took no part in the decision of this case.



"Escrow Agreement.

"This memoranda of agreement, made and entered into this 1st day of April, A.D. 1891, by and between the National Harrow Company, a corporation of Utica, in the State of New York, and Edward Norris of the same place; and E. Bement & Sons of Lansing, in the State of Michigan.

"Whereas, the said National Harrow Company is the owner of a large number of latters patent relating to float spring tooth harrows, and is desirous of granting licenses thereunder to the following-named persons, firms and corporations, to wit: Chas. H. Childs & Company, D.B. Smith & Company, A.W. Stevens & Son, Childs & Jones, Syracuse Chilled Plow Company, Geo. W. Sweet & Company, Walker Manufacturing Company, Taylor & Henry, the Herndeen Manufacturing Company, D.C. & H.C. Reed & Company, L.C. Lull & Company, Williams Manufacturing Company, W.S. Lawrence, McSherry Manufacturing Company, D.O. Everst & Company, E. Bement & Sons, Hench & Dromgold, Farmers' Friend Manufacturing Company, Eureka Mower Company.

"And whereas, the said National Harrow Company has placed in the hands of said E. Norris in escrow, duly executed by it in duplicate, a certain contract and license for each of said persons, firms and corporations hereinbefore named, to be by the said E. Norris immediately presented to each of the above and foregoing named respective persons, firms and corporations, to be signed and executed by said respective persons, firms and corporations —

"Now, therefore, it is hereby understood and agreed by and between the parties hereto, that as the said licenses and contracts are signed and executed by the said respective persons, firms and corporations, they shall be held by said Norris, in escrow, for both parties until such time as all of said above-named persons, firms and corporations shall have signed, executed and delivered the same to said Norris, whereupon they shall become operative, and immediately thereafter the said Norris shall deliver one of the duplicates of each of said contracts and licenses to the said National Harrow Company and the other duplicate thereof to the respective licensees who have signed the same, in person or by mail.

"But in case any of the above-named persons, firms and corporations shall neglect or refuse to sign, execute and deliver said respective contracts and licenses on or before the 1st day of June next, then and in such case said E. Norris shall, provided he shall be so directed, by a resolution duly adopted by the board of trustees of said National Harrow Company, make delivery of such of said contracts and licenses as have been signed and executed as above provided, at which time said contracts and licenses shall become operative, and in case the said National Harrow Company shall conclude not to accept any less number than the whole of such respective contracts and licenses, then and in such case the said Norris shall cancel each of said contracts and licenses, and they shall be null and void.

"Witness the signatures of the parties.


"Received of E. Bement & Sons a license and contract executed between the National Harrow Company and said E. Bement & Sons, which I agree to hold and deliver in accordance with an agreement between the said National Harrow Company and said E. Bement & Sons and myself, and hereto attached.

"Dated this 1st day of April, 1891. EDWARD NORRIS."


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