Learn About the Law
Get help with your legal needs
FindLaw’s Learn About the Law features thousands of informational articles to help you understand your options. And if you’re ready to hire an attorney, find one in your area who can help.
It seems to us that if Bell was aware, at the time that he filed his specifications, asserted his claims, and procured his patents that the same matter had been previously discovered and put into operation by other persons, he was guilty of such a fraud upon the public that the monopoly which these patents grant to him ought to be revoked and annulled. We will consider hereafter the power and duty of the court in such a case. At present we are concerned with the sufficiency of the allegations; that is to say, whether the allegation of this fraud is made with such minuteness and sufficiency of detail as to require an answer on the part of the defendants. The fraud alleged is precisely the fraud which would be committed in a case of that kind. It is a fraud of obtaining a patent for an invention of which the party knew he was not the original inventor. This priority of invention is an essential element. It is absolutely necessary to the right to have such a patent, and can in no case be dispensed with. It may be possible that a patent would not be absolutely void where the patentee was not really the first inventor, and the act of congress made provision that any man sued for an infringement of such patent might prove that the patentee was not the original discoverer or inventor. But we do not decide here whether a patent is absolutely void, because the patentee [128 U.S. 315, 356] is not the first inventor, nor whether a court of equity should set aside a patent where the party had obtained it without fraud or deceit, believing himself to be the first inventor. It is sufficient for the present case, in which, on demurrer, we wish to decide nothing more than is necessary to determine whether the defendants should be called to answer the bill, to say that the charge here is that he knew he was not the first inventor, and that his efforts to procure the patent were fraudulent because he was aware that he was obtaining a patent to which he was not in law or equity entitled. Nor is the objection to the bill, that it does not allege the facts which constitute the fraud, well taken. The guilty knowledge is well and fully stated, the prior inventions and discoveries and their authors are alleged to have been known to Bell, and are mentioned with sufficient precision, and his connection with some of them, especially in the case of Dr. Gray and others, is set forth with minute particularity. It is mistake to suppose that in stating the facts which constitute a fraud, where relief is sought in a bill in equity, all the evidence which may be adduced to prove that fraud must be recited in the bill. It is sufficient if the main facts or incidents which constitute the fraud against which relief is desired shall be fairly stated, so as to put the defendant upon his guard, and apprise him of what answer may be required of him. Story, Eq. Pl. 252. In all these particulars we think the bill is sufficiently explicit. There can be no question that if the bill, as is the general rule on demurrers, is to be taken as true, there is enough in it to establish the fraud in the procurement of the patent, and to justify its cancellation or rescission, if the court has jurisdiction to do so. Harding v. Handy, 11 Wheat. 103; St. Louis v. Knapp Co., 104 U.S. 658 .
But the second group of causes of demurrer is perhaps the most important, and the one on which counsel seem to have principally relied, the essence of which is that 'no power or authority in law exists, in any person or party, or any court, to bring said suit, nor to entertain the same, nor to give the relief therein prayed, nor any relief thereunder touching the [128 U.S. 315, 357] subject-matter thereof,' and 'that the complainant has not made or stated a case which calls upon or justifies this court in the exercise of its discretion to permit this bill to be entertained.' It will be observed that this broad assertion admits that a party may practice an intentional fraud upon the officers of the government who are authorized and whose duty it is to decide upon his right to a patent, and that he may by means of that fraud perpetrate a grevious wrong upon the general public, upon the United States, and upon its representatives. It admits that by prostituting the forms of law to his service he may obtain an instrument bearing the authority of the government of the United States, entitling him to a monopoly in the use of an invention which he never originated, of a discovery which was made by others, and which, however generally useful or even necessary it may become, is under his absolute and exclusive control, either as to that use or as to the price he may charge for it, during the life of the grant. It assumes that the government, which has thus been imposed upon and deceived, is utterly helpless, and that it can take no steps to correct the evil or to redress the fraud. If such a fraud were practiced upon an individual, he would have a remedy in any court having jurisdiction to correct frauds and mistakes, and to relieve against accident; but it is said that the government of the United States-the representative of 60,000,000 of people, acting for them, on their behalf and under their authority-can have no remedy against a fraud which affects them all, and whose influence may be unlimited. Though, by the constitution of the United States, it is declared that 'the judicial power shall extend to all cases, in law and equity, arising under this constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made, under their authority,' and 'to controversies to which the United States shall be a party,' the argument asserts that the practice of a gross fraud upon the United States, concerning matters of immense pecuniary value, and affecting a very large part of its population, is not a proper question of judicial cognizance. It would be a strange anomaly in a government [128 U.S. 315, 358] organized upon a system which rigidly separates the powers to be exercised by its executive, its legislative, and its judicial branches, and which in this emphatic language defines the jurisdiction of the judicial department, to hold that in that department there should be no remedy for such a wrong.
As we shall presently see, this court has repeatedly held, after very full argument, and after a due consideration of the proposition here stated, that, in regard to patents issued by the government for lands conveyed to individuals or to corporations, the circuit courts of the United States do have jurisdiction to set aside and cancel them for frauds committed by the parties to whom they were issued. This class of cases will be considered further on. It is sufficient to say here that they establish the right of the United States to bring suits in its own courts to be relieved against fraud committed in cases of that class exactly similiar to that charged in the present case; and it is also to be observed that in those cases there is no express act of congress authorizing such procedure, a ground of objection which is here urged. Recurring to the constitution itself the great source of all power in the United States, whether executive, legislative, or judicial, there is a striking similarity in the language of that instrument conferring the power upon the government under which patents are issued for inventions and patents are issued for lands. It is declared in article 1, 8, par. 8, that 'the congress shall have 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.' It is by virtue of this clause that congress has passed the laws under which the patents of the defendant in this case were issued. Article 4, 3, par. 2, declares that 'the congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.' It is under this clause that congress has passed laws by which title to public lands is conveyed to individuals, by instruments also called patents. The power, therefore, to issue a patent for an invention, and [128 U.S. 315, 359] the authority to issue such an instrument for a grant of land, emanate from the same source; and, although exercised by different bureaus or officers under the government, are of the same nature, character, and validity, and imply in each case the exercise of the power of the government according to modes regulated by acts of congress.
With regard to the jurisdiction of the circuit court, in which this suit was brought, there does not seem to be any objection made by defendants, if such suit could be brought in any court. Indeed, the language of the act of congress on that subject does not admit of any such doubt, for it declares 'that the circuit courts of the United States shall have original cognizance, concurrent with the courts of the several states, of all suits of a civil nature at common law or in equity, where the matter in dispute exceeds, exclusive of costs, the sum or value of five hundred dollars, and arising under the constitution or laws of the United States, or treaties made, or which shall be made, under their authority, or in which the United States are plaintiffs or petitioners.' 18 U. S. St. 470, act of March 3, 1875. In the present case the United States are plaintiffs, and the bill asserts that the suit is one of a civil nature, and of equitable cognizance; and manifestly, if it presents a good cause of action, it arises under the laws and constitution of the United States. It is therefore within the language, both of the constitution and of the statute conferring jurisdiction on the circuit courts. An examination of the specific objections made to the present bill will illustrate and enforce this general view. While it cannot successfully be denied that the general powers of a court of equity include the right to annul and set aside contracts or instruments obtained by fraud, to correct mistakes made in them, and to give all other appropriate relief against documents of that character, such as requiring their delivery up, their cancellation, or their correction, in order to make them conform to the intention of the parties, it would seem to require some special reason why the government of the United States should not be able to avail itself of these powers of a court of equity. Accordingly, the defendant objects that the [128 U.S. 315, 360] appropriate remedy, if any exists, is in the common-law courts, and not in a court of equity, and that in the ancient proceedings of our English ancestors, in regard to patents, the only remedy for relief against them, when they were improvidently issued, was by a scire facias in the name of the king, or by his express and personal revocation of them.
Charters and patents authenticating grants of personal privileges were in the earlier days of the English government made by the crown. They were supposed to emanate directly from the king, and were not issued under any authority given by acts of parliament, nor were they regulated by any statutes. Being, therefore, in their origin an exercise of his personal prerogative, the power of revoking them, so far as they could be revoked at all, was in the king, and was exercised by him as a personal privilege. This mode of revoking patents, however, seems to have fallen into disuse, and the same end was attained by the issue of writs of scire facias in the name of the king, to show cause why the patents should not be repealed or revoked. These were, of course, returnable into some court, and it appears to have been the practice to do this in the court of king's bench, or in the court of chancery, where the record of the patent always remained in what was called the 'Petty Bag Office.' If the latter mode is to be considered a proceeding in chancery which, under our adoption of the methods and jurisdiction of the high court of chancery in England, would fall within the province of a chancery court in this country, then the precedent for the exercise of this jurisdiction by a court of chancery is clear and undoubted. This, however, is a question which, if not in relation to this particular class of cases, has, in regard to others, concerning the prerogative jurisdiction of the court of chancery in this country, been doubted. But the courts of England seem to have considered that in the matter of repealing or revoking a patent the king may sue in what court he pleases. See Magdalen College Case, 11 Coke, 68b, 75a. The jurisdiction to repeal a patent by a decree of a court of chancery, as an exercise of its ordinary powers, was sustained [128 U.S. 315, 361] in the case of Attorney General v. Vernon, 1 Vern. 277. In that action a bill was brought by the attorney general against Vernon and others to set aside a patent issued by the crown, on the ground that it was obtained by surprise and by false particulars. It was insisted by the defendant's counsel that there never had been any precedent of this nature to repeal letters patent by an English bill in chancery, but that it was a case of first impression; and they contended that the title under the letters patent was one purely at law, and returnable there; likewise, that there was a remedy by scire facias. It was also objected that the word 'fraud,' which, if anything, must give jurisdiction to the court in the case, was not in the whole bill. Also, among other things, it was objected that, if letters patent should be impeached by an English bill in chancery upon such suggestions and pretensions as these, no patentee could be safe, nor would the king's seal be of any force. To this it was replied, on the part of the king, that he may sue in what court he pleases; that the bill charges surprise and false particulars, and that fraud is properly relievable here; that the king ought not to be in a worse condition than a subject; that a nobleman would be relieved of such a fraud put upon him by his servant; and that, if the king could not be relieved in this case by an English bill, he would be without remedy. Whereupon the lord keeper said: 'The question is, in short, whether there be a fraud or not? If a fraud, then properly relievable here. It is not fit such a matter as this should be stifled upon a plea; and therefore the lord keeper overruled the plea, and denied to save the benefit of it till the hearing, because he would not give any countenance to such a case.' So far as precedent is concerned, this case, which has never been overruled, establishes the doctrine that, in case of fraud in the obtaining of a patent, a court of chancery, by virtue of that fact, has jurisdiction to repeal or revoke it.
The case of King v. Butler, 3 Lev. 220, which was heard in the house of lords, was one where the king had made a grant of a market by letters patent to Sir Oliver Butler, the defendant. A writ of scire facias was brought in the [128 U.S. 315, 362] court of chancery to repeal the grant, and the lord chancellor gave judgment that it should be vacated; whereupon the matter was brought by a writ of error to the house of lords, and, after argument there, the peers requested the opinion of the judges then attending in parliament, who all unanimously agreed that the judgment given in chancery ought to be affirmed, and delivered their opinion accordingly. It was objected that the writ did not lie, because there was a remedy by the common law, to-wit, by assize of nuisance, where the matter should be tried by a jury, and by several judges, and not by one only, as it is in chancery; to which they answered that the king has an undoubted right to repeal a patent wherein he is deceived or his subjects prejudiced. And in none of the cases cited was there any question whether the writ would lie, but only the manner of pursuing it, and other incident matters. It was said that it was not unusual for the king to have his remedy, as well as the subject also. The whole text of the answers of the judges in this case seems to imply that a jury was not necessary, but that the existence of the record in the court of chancery was a sufficient foundation for the proceeding there, though it might be brought in some other court, when the king had declared the patent forfeited, or when there had been office found. The judgment of the court of chancery was therefore affirmed. See, on this subject, Queen v. Aires, 10 Mod. 354; Queen v. Archipelago Co., 1 El. & Bl. 310; Cumming v. Forrester, 2 Jac. & W. 341.
But whatever may have been the course of procedure usual or requisite in the English jurisprudence, to enable the king to repeal, revoke, or nulify his own patents, issued under his prerogative right, it can have but little force in limiting or restricting the measures by which the government of the United States shall have a remedy for an imposition upon it or its officers in the procurement or issue of a patent. We have no king in this country; we have here no prerogative right of the crown; and letters patent, whether for inventions or for grants of land, issue not from the president but from the United States. The president has no prerogative in [128 U.S. 315, 363] the matter. He has no right to issue a patent, and, though it is the custom for patents for lands to be signed by him, they are of no avail until the proper seal of the government is affixed to them. Indeed, a recent act of congress authorizes the appointment of a clerk for the special purpose of signing the president's name to patents of that character; and, so far as patents for inventions are concerned, whatever may have been the case formerly, since the act of July 8, 1870, they are issued without his signature, and without his name or his style of office being mentioned in them. The authority for this procedure is embodied in the following language of the Revised Statutes: 'Sec. 4883. All patents shall be issued in the name of the United States of America, under the seal of the patent-office, and shall be signed by the secretary of the interior, and countersigned by the commissioner of patents, and they shall be recorded, together with the specifications, in the patent-office, in books to be kept for that purpose.' This only expresses the necessary effect of the acts of congress. The authority by which the patent issues is that of the United States of America. The seal which is used is the seal of the patent-office, and that was created by congressional enactment. It is signed by the secretary of the interior, and the commissioner of patents, who also countersigns it, is an officer of that department. The patent, then, is not the exercise of any prerogative power or discretion by the president, or by any other officer of the government, but it is the result of a course of proceeding quasi judicial in its character, and is not subject to be repealed or revoked by the president, the secretary of the interior, or the commissioner of patents, when once issued. See U. S. v. Schurz, 102 U.S. 378 .
It is not without weight, in considering the jurisdiction of a court of equity in regard to the power to impeach patents, that an appeal is provided from the decision of the commissioner of patents to the supreme court of the District of Columbia, and that the Revised Statutes enact as follows: 'Sec. 4915. Whenever a patent on application is refused, [128 U.S. 315, 364] either by the commissioner of patents or by the supreme court of the District of Columbia upon appeal from the commissioner, the applicant may have remedy by bill in equity; and the court having cognizance thereof, on notice to adverse parties and other due proceedings had, may adjudge that such applicant is entitled, according to law, to receive a patent for his invention, as specified in his claim, or for any part thereof, as the facts in the case may appear.' It is then further provided that, if the adjudication be in favor of the applicant, it shall authorize the commissioner of patents to issue such patent upon the applicant's filing in the patent-office a copy of the adjudication. These provisions, while they do not in express terms confer upon the courts of equity of the United States the power to annul or vacate a patent, show very clearly the sense of congress that, if such power is to be exercised anywhere, it should be in the equity jurisdiction of those courts. The only authority competent to set a patent aside, or to annual it, or to correct it, for any reason whatever, is vested in the judicial department of the government, and this can only be effected by proper proceedings taken in the courts of the United States.
This subject has been frequently discussed in this court, and the principles necessary to its decision have been well established. The case of U. S. v. Stone, 2 Wall. 525, was a bill in chancery brought by the United States, in the circuit court for the district of Kansas, to set aside a patent issued by the government to Stone, the defendant. The question of the jurisdiction of the court to entertain such a bill, which was denied by counsel for Stone, was discussed at considerable length in their brief, and in the argument of counsel for the United States the language of Chief Justice KENT, in Jackson v. Lawton, 10 Johns. 24, was cited to the following effect: 'The English practice of suing out a scire facias by the first patentee may have grown out of the rights of the prerogative, and it ceases to be applicable with us. In addition to the remedy by scire facias, etc., there is another by bill in the equity side of the court of chancery. Such a bill was sus- [128 U.S. 315, 365] tained in the case of Attorney General v. Vernon, 1 Vern. 277, to set aside letters patent obtained by fraud, and they were set aside by a decree.' This extract from the brief of counsel in the Stone Case is cited to show that the attention of the court was turned to this question, and the language of the opinion, as delivered by Mr. Justice GRIER, expresses in sententious terms the result arrived at by this court in regard to this entire question. It is as follows: 'A patent is the highest evidence of title, and is conclusive as against the government, and all claiming under junior patents or titles, until it is set aside or annulled by some judicial tribunal. In England this was originally done by scire facias, but a bill in chancery is found a more convenient remedy. Nor is fraud in the patentee the only ground upon which a bill will be sustained. Patents are sometimes issued unadvisedly or by mistake, where the officer has no authority in law to grant them, or where another party has a higher equity, and should have received the patent. In such cases courts of law will pronounce them void. The patent is but evidence of a grant, and the officer who issues it acts ministerially, and not judicially. If he issues a patent for land reserved from sale by law, such patent is void for want of authority. But one officer of the land-office is not competent to cancel or annul the act of his predecessor. That is a judicial act, and requires the judgment of a court. It is contended here by the counsel of the United States, that the land for which a patent was granted to the appellant was reserved from sale for the use of the government, and consequently that the partent is void; and, although no fraud is charged in the bill, we have no doubt that such a proceeding in chancery is the proper remedy, and that if the allegations of the bill are supported, that the decree of the court below canceling the patent should be affirmed.'
We cite thus fully from this case because it is the first one in which the questions now before us were fully considered and clearly decided. In the previous case of U. S. v. Hughes, 11 How. 552, the same question came before the court on demurrer. The court held that the demurrer must [128 U.S. 315, 366] be overruled, saving that it cannot 'be conceived why the government should stand on a different footing from any other proprietor.' The case afterwards came again before this court, and is reported in 4 Wall. 232, later than the Stone Case. The court then said: 'It was the plain duty of the United States to seek to vacate and annul the instrument, to the end that their previous engagement might be fulfilled by the transfer of a clear title, the only one intended for the purchaser by the act of congress.' In the case of Moore v. Robbins, 96 U.S. 530 , this court said, in a suit between private citizens, and speaking of the issue of patents by the government: 'If fraud, mistake, error, or wrong has been done, the courts of justice present the only remedy. These courts are as open to the United States to sue for the cancellation of the deed or reconveyance of the land as to individuals, and, if the government is the party injured, this is the proper course.' In Moffat v. U. S., 112 U.S. 24 , 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 10, a decree of the circuit court setting aside a patent as having been obtained by fraud was affirmed; and the same doctrine was reasserted in U. S. v. Minor, 114 U.S. 233 , 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 836. Still later, in the case of Iron Co. v. U. S., 123 U.S. 307 , 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 131, the right of the court, by a proceeding in equity at the instance of the attorney general, and in the name of the United States, to set aside a patent for land, was fully recognized; and the language used in the case of U. S. v. Minor, supra, was cited, to the following effect. 'Where the patent is the result of nothing but fraud and perjury, it is enough to hold that it conveys the legal title, and it would be going quite too far to say that it cannot be assailed by a proceeding in equity, and set a side as void, if the fraud is proved, and there are no innocent holders for value.'
The whole question was reviewed at great length by this court at its last term, in the case of U. S. v. Tin Co., 125 U.S. 273 , 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 850, when all the cases above mentioned, and others, were cited and commented upon. The matter is thus summed up in the opinion of the court: 'But [128 U.S. 315, 367] we are of opinion that since the right of the government of the United States to institute such a suit depends upon the same general principles which would authorize a private citizen to apply to a court of justice for relief against an instrument obtained from him by fraud or deceit, or any of those other practices which are admitted to justify a court in granting relief, the government must show that, like the private individual, it has such an interest in the relief sought as entitles it to move in the matter. If it be a question of property, a case must be made in which the court can afford a remedy in regard to that property; if it be a question of fraud, which would render the instrument void, the fraud must operate to the prejudice of the United States; and if it is apparent that the suit is brought for the benefit of some third party, and that the United States has no pecuniary interest in the remedy sought, and is under no obligation to the party who will be benefited to sustain an action for his use,-in short, if there does not appear any obligation on the part of the United States to the public, or to any individual, or any interest of its own, it can no more sustain such an action than any private person could under similar circumstances.' This language is construed by counsel for the appellee in this case to limit the relief granted at the instance of the United States to cases in which it has a direct pecuniary interest. But it is not susceptible of such construction. It was evidently in the mind of the court that the case before it was one where the property right to the land in controversy was the matter of importance, but it was careful to say that the cases in which the instrumentality of the court cannot thus be used are those where the United States has no pecuniary interest in the remedy sought, and is also under no obligation to the party who will be benefited to sustain an action for his use, and also where it does not appear that any obligation existed on the part of the United States to the public or to any individual. The essence of the right of the United States to interfere in the present case is its obligation to protect the public from the monopoly of the patent which was procured by fraud, and it would be difficult to find language [128 U.S. 315, 368] more aptly used to include this in the class of cases which are not excluded from the jurisdiction of the court by want of interest in the government of the United States.
It is insisted that these decisions have reference exclusively to patents for land, and that they are not applicable to patents for inventions and discoveries. The argument very largely urged for that view is the one just stated, that in the cases which had reference to patents for land the pecuniary interest of the United States was the foundation of the jurisdiction. This, however, is repelled by the language just cited, and by the fact that in more than one of the cases, notably in U. S. v. Hughes, supra, the right of the government to sustain the suit was based upon its legal or moral obligation to give a good title to another party who had a prior and better claim to the land, but whose right was obstructed by the patent issued by the United States.
The case of Mowry v. Whitney, 14 Wall. 434, was a bill in chancery brought by Mowry, in the circuit court for the Eastern district of Pennsylvania, against Whitney, charging that Whitney's patent for a mode of annealing and cooling cast-iron car-wheels and an extension of it made by the patentoffice, had been procured by fraud and false swearing, and praying that it and the extension might be declared void and of no effect. To this bill Whitney demurred. The demurrer was sustained by the court below, and from the decree dismissing the bill Mowry took an appeal to this court, where it was said 'that the complainant could not, in his own right, sustain such a suit.' In giving its reasons for this, the court said: 'We are of opinion that no one but the government, either in its own name or the name of its appropriate officer, or by some form of proceeding which gives official assurance of the sanction of the proper authority, can institute judicial proceedings for the purpose of vacating or rescinding the patent which the government has issued to an individual, except in the cases provided for in section 16 of the act of July 4, 1836. The ancient mode of doing this in the English courts was by scire facias, and three classes of cases are laid down in which this may be done.' One of these is, 'when the king has granted [128 U.S. 315, 369] a thing by false suggestion, he may by scire facias repeal his own grant; citing 4 Co. Inst. 88; Rex v. Blage, 2 Dyer, 197, 198, and Basset v. Torrington, 3 Dyer, 276, 277. ... The scire facias to repeal a patent was brought in chancery where the patent was of record; and, though in this country the writ of scire facias is not in use as a chancery proceeding, the nature of the chancery jurisdiction and its mode of proceeding have established it as the appropriate tribunal for the annulling of a grant or patent from the government. This is settled, so far as this court is concerned, by the case of U. S. v. Stone, 2 Wall. 525.' The opinion then refers to Attorney General v. Vernon and Jackson v. Lawton, already cited. It is said that this language of the court is obiter, and does not decide directly that a suit can be brought in chancery to cancel or annul a patent issued by the United States government for an invention. It is true that what the court was called upon to decide was that a private citizen could not bring such suit, but evidently the reason given for it must be held to establish the principle upon which the court acted, and that reason was that the private citizen could not do it because the right lay with the government. The duty and the right of the government to bring an action which would end in the destruction of the patent, and which would thus protect everybody against the asserted monopoly of it, was the reason why the private citizen could not for himself bring such a suit. Another reason given by the court is that the fraud, if one exists, must have been practiced on the government, which, as the party injured, is the appropriate party to seek relief, and that a suit by an individual could only be conclusive in result as between the patentee and the party suing, and the patent would remain a valid instrument as to all others, while, if the action was brought by the government, and a decree had to annul the patent, this would be conclusive in all suits founded on the patent. Other reasons were given showing that the United States was the appropriate party to bring such a suit, and that the circuit court of the United States, sitting in equity, was the proper tribunal in which to bring it,-all tend- [128 U.S. 315, 370] ing to show that the reason why a private citizen could not have such relief was that it belonged to the government.
The United States, by issuing the patents which are here sought to be annulled, has taken from the public rights of immense value, and bestowed them upon the patentee. In this respect the government and its officers are acting as the agents of the people, and have, under the authority of law vested in them, taken from the people this valuable privilege, and conferred it as an exclusive right upon the patentee. This is property, property of a value so large that nobody has been able to estimate it. In a former argument in this court it was said to be worth more than twenty- five millions of dollars. This has been taken from the people, from the public, and made the private property of the patentee, by the action of one of the departments of the government acting under the forms of law, but deceived and misled, as the bill alleges, by the patentee. That the government, authorized both by the constitution and the statutes to bring suits at law and in equity, should find it to be its duty to correct this evil, to recall these patents, to get a remedy for this fraud, is so clear that it needs no argument; and we think we have demonstrated that the proper remedy is the one adopted by the government in this case.
But conceding that in regard to patents for land, and in reference to other transactions in which the government is a party, the courts of equity have jurisdiction to correct mistakes, to give relief for frauds, and to cancel contracts and other important instruments, it is said that in reference to patents for inventions and discoveries the acts of congress have provided another remedy for frauds committed in obtaining them, and for the very class of frauds set up in this bill. Counsel, therefore, contend that this supersedes all others. This remedy is found in the following provision of the Revised Statutes: 'Sec. 4920. In any action for infringement, the defendant may plead the general issue, and, having given notice in writing to the plaintiff or his attorney thirty days before, may prove on trial any one or more of the following special matters: [128 U.S. 315, 371] First, that for the purpose of deceiving the public the description and specification filed by the patentee in the patent-office was made to contain less than the whole truth relative to his invention or discovery, or more than is necessary to produce the desired effect; or, second, that he had surreptitiously or unjustly obtained the patent for that which was in fact invented by another, who was using reasonable diligence in adapting and perfecting the same; or, third, that it had been patented or described in some printed publication prior to his supposed invention or discovery thereof; or, fourth, that he was not the original and first inventor or discoverer of any material and substantial part of the thing patented; or, fifth, that it had been in public use or on sale in this country for more than two years before his application for a patent, or had been abandoned to the public.'
Prior to the year 1836, from the earliest enactments of patent law, certain provisions had been incorporated in that law authorizing a scire facias to issue to declare a patent void for want of invention by the patentee, and other matters, which, though instituted by a private individual, was under the control of the official attorneys of the government. This was repealed by the act of 1836, which may be said to be the first real and successful organization of the patent-office and the system of patent law in the United States. The law on this subject was revised by the act of congress of July 8, 1870, (16 U. S. St. 198,) and the Revised Statutes of the United States, from which section 4920 is quoted, contain the language applicable to this subject. The statute of 1836 repealed the provision for a scire facias. It is now argued that the repeal of this provision, together with the enactment of the provision of section 4920, show that the only remedy for the improvident issuing of a patent is to be found in the language of that section. These clauses, while they do not in any general form declare that a person sued for an infringement of a patent may set up as a defense that it was [128 U.S. 315, 372] procured by fraud or deceit, do in effect specify various acts of fraud which the infringer may rely upon as a defense to a suit against him founded upon that instrument. It is therefore urged that because each individual affected by the monopoly of the patent is at liberty, when he is sued for using it without license or authority, to set up these defenses, the remedy which the United States has, under the principles we have attempted to sustain, is superseded by that fact. But a consideration of the nature and effect of these different modes of proceeding in regard to the patent will show that no such purpose can be inferred from these clauses of the act of congress. In the first place, the right given to the infringer to make this defense is a right given to him personally, and to him alone, and the effect of a successful defense of this character by one infringer is simply to establish the fact that, as between him and the patentee, no right of action exists for the reasons set up in such defense. But the pat entee is not prevented by any such decision from suing a hundred other infringers, if so many there be, and putting each of them to an expensive defense, in which they all, or some of them, may be defeated and compelled to pay, because they are not in possession of the evidence on which the other infringer succeeded in establishing his defense. On the other hand, the suit of the government, if successful, declares the patent void, sets it aside as of no force, vacates it or recalls it, and puts an end to all suits which the patentee can bring against anybody. It opens to the entire world the use of the invention or discovery in regard to which the patentee had asserted a monopoly.
This broad and conclusive effect of a decree of the court, in a suit of that character brought by the United States, is so widely different, so much more beneficial, and is pursued under circumstances so much more likely to secure complete justice, than any defense which can be made by an individual infringer, that it is impossible to suppose that congress, in granting this right to the individual, intended to supersede or take away the more enlarged remedy of the government. Some of these specifications of grounds of defense are not [128 U.S. 315, 373] such as would ordinarily be sufficient in a court of equity to set aside the patent, as 'that it had been in public use or on sale in this country for more than two years,' or 'that it had been patented or described in some printed publication prior to his supposed invention or discovery thereof.' It is unnecessary to decide whether these grounds now would be sufficient cause for setting aside a patent in a suit by the United States, but they are not of that general character which would give a court of equity jurisdiction to do that, except as it may be said they are now parts of the general system of the patent law. A question almost identical with this was made in the house of peers in the case of King v. Butler, 3 Lev. 220, as to whether the judgment obtained by the king in the court of chancery repealed the grant to Butler. It was answered by the judges to some of the objections that 'it was not unusual for the king to have his remedy, as well as the subject also, as for batteries, trespasses, etc., the king has a remedy by information and indictment, and the party grieved by his action.' The argument need not be further extended. There is nothing in these provisions expressing an intention of limiting the power of the government of the United States to get rid of a patent obtained from it by fraud and deceit; and although the legislature may have given to private individuals a more limited form of relief, by way of defense to an action by the patentee, we think the argument that this was intended to supersede the affirmative relief to which the United States is entitled, to obtain a cancellation or vacation of an instrument obtained from it by fraud, an instrument which affects the whole public, whose protection from such a fraud is eminently the duty of the United States, is not sound.
The decree of the circuit court dismissing the bill of plaintiff is reversed, and the case remanded to that court, with directions to overrule the demurrer, with leave to defendants to plead or answer, or both, within a time to be fixed by that court.
Mr. Justice GRAY was not present at the argument, and took no part in the decision of this case.
A free source of state and federal court opinions, state laws, and the United States Code. For more information about the legal concepts addressed by these cases and statutes visit FindLaw's Learn About the Law.
Citation: 128 U.S. 315
Docket No: No. 174
Decided: March 19, 1888
Court: United States Supreme Court
Search our directory by legal issue
Enter information in one or both fields (Required)
FindLaw for Legal Professionals
Search our directory by legal issue
Enter information in one or both fields (Required)