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Back to The History of American Film: Primary Sources

Edison v. American Mutoscope Company (1902)

The first two decades of the twentieth century witnessed bitter struggles between the Film Trust, led by Thomas Alva Edison, and independent film producers. In this landmark 1902 decision, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Southern District of New York overturns Edison's claim that he holds patent rights over all aspects of motion picture technology.

The photographic reproduction of moving objects, the production from the negatives of a series of pictures representing the successive stages of motion, and the presentation of them by an exhibiting apparatus to the eye of the spectator in such rapid sequence as to blend them together, and give the effect of a single picture in which the objects are moving, had been accomplished long before Mr. Edison entered the field. The patent in suit pertains mainly to that branch of the art which consists of the production of suitable negatives. The introduction of instantaneous photography, by facilitating the taking of negatives with the necessary rapidity to secure what is termed "persistence of vision," led to the devising of cameras for using sensitized plates and bringing them successively into the fields of the lens, dand later for using a continuously moving sensitized band or strip of paper to receive the sucessive exposures. The invention of the patent in suit was made by Mr. Edison in the summer of 1889. We shall consider only those references to the prior art which show the nearest approximation of it, and are the most valuable of those which have been introduced for the purpose of negativing the novelty of its claims.

The French patent to Du Cos, of 1864, describes a camera apparatus consisting of a battery of lenses placed together in parallel rows, and focused upon a sensitive plate; the lenses being caused to act in rapid succession, by means of a suitable shutter, to depict the successive stages of movement of the object to be photographed....

The camera appartus of M. Marey, described in the Scientific American of June, 1882, and used by him, mounted in a photographic gun, to produce a series of instantaneous photographs, showing the successive phases of motion of birds and animals, describes a single-lens camera and clock mechanism which actuates the several parts....

It is apparent from the references considered that while Mr. Edison was not the first to devise a camera apparatus for taking negatives of objects in motion, and at a rate sufficiently high to result in persistence of vision, the prior art does not disclose the specific type of apparatus which is described in his patent. His apparatus is capable of using a single sensitized and flexible film of great length with a single lens camera, and of producing an indefinite number of negatives n such a film with a rapidity theretofore unknown. The Du Cos apparatus requires the use of a large number of lenses in succession, and both the lens and the sensitized surface are in continuous motion while the picture is being taken; whereas in the apparatus of the patent but a single lens is employed, which is always at rest, and the film is also at rest at the time when the negative is being taken. Nor is it provided with means for passing the sensitized surface across the camera lenses at the very high rate of speed, which is a feature, though not an essential feature, of the patented apparatus....

The important question is whether the invention was in such sense a primary one as to authorize the claims based upon it. The general statements in the specification imply that Mr. Edison as the creator of the art to which the patent relates, and the descriptive parts are carefully framed to lay the foundation for generic claims which are not to be limited by importing into them any of the operative devices, except those which are indispensable to effect the functional results enumerated. It will be observed that neither the means for moving the film across the lens of the camera, nor for exposing successive portions of it to the operation of the lens, nor for giving it a continuous or intermittent motion, nor for doing these things at a high rate of speed, are specified in the claims otherwise than functionally. Any combination of means that will do these things at a high enough rate of speed to secure the result of persistence of vision, and which includes a stationary single lens and tape-like film, is covered by the claims.

It is obvious that Mr. Edison was not a pioneer, in the large sense of the term, or in the more limited sense in which he would have been if he had also invented the film. He was not the inventor of the film. He was not the first inventor of apparatus capable of producing suitable negatives, taken from practically a single point of view, in a single-line sequence, upon a film like his, and embodying the same general means for rotating drums and shutters for bringing the sensitized surface across the lens, and exposing successive portions of it in rapid succession. Du Cos anticipated him in this, notwithstanding he did not use the film. Neither was he the first inventor of apparatus capable of producing suitable negatives, and embodying means for passing a sensitized surface across a single-lens camera at a high rate of speed, and with an intermittent motion, and for exposing successive portions of the surfaces during the periods of rest. His claim for such an apparatus was rejected by the patent office, and he acquiesced in its rejection. He was anticipated in this by Marey, and Marey also anticipated him in photographing successive positions of the object in motion from the same point of view.

The predecessors of Edison invented apparatus, during a period of transition from plates to flexible paper film, and from paper film to celluloid film, which was capable of producing negatives suitable for reproduction in exhibiting machines. No new principle was to be discovered, or essentially new forms of machine invented, in order to make the improved photographic material available for that purpose. The early inventors had felt the need of such material, but, in the absence of its supply, had either contented themselves with such measure of practical success as was possible, or had allowed their plans to remain upon paper as indications of the forms of mechanical and optical apparatus which might be used when suitable photographic surfaces became available. They had not perfected the details of apparatus especially adapted for the employment of the film of the patent, and to do this required but a moderate amount of mechanical ingenuity. Undoubtedly Mr. Edison, by utilizing this film and perfecting the first apparatus for using it, met all the conditions necessary for commercial success. This, however, did not entitle him, under the patent laws, to a monopoly of all camera apparatus capable of utilizing the film. Nor did it entitle him to a monopoly of all apparatus employing a single camera.


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