Kirk v. United States - 163 U.S. 49 (1896)


U.S. Supreme Court

Kirk v. United States, 163 U.S. 49 (1896)

Kirk v. United States

No. 214

Argued April 14, 1896

Decided May 4, 1896

163 U.S. 49

Syllabus

If, under any circumstances, a patentee can sue to recover for the use of a patented article, made before the letters patent were granted, he cannot do so when he was not the inventor of the thing patented, when the device had been in public use for more than two years before the patent was applied for, when the alleged use was by the United States, and when the government, so far from agreeing to pay a royalty for it, had protested against any patent's being issued for it.

This was a claim by George E. Kirk, as assignee of letters patent No. 462,224, for a street letter box, issued October 27, 1891, to Samuel Strong, upon an application filed therefor March 9, 1874.

The original petition was filed October 27, 1884, about ten years after the application for the patent was filed, and seven years before it was finally issued.

The case having been tried by the Court of Claims, that court made a finding of facts, of which the following is an abstract:

On March 30 and August 31, 1869, there were granted to said Samuel Strong two patents, Nos. 88,525 and 94,449, for improvements in street letter boxes, and on the 15th of September of the same year, Strong entered into a contract in writing with the defendant, through the Postmaster General, whereby Strong contracted to furnish cast-iron street letter boxes for the use of the Post Office Department in such numbers and at such times and places as might be ordered by the Postmaster General, up to October 1, 1872. These letter boxes were to be of the size, shape, weight, and model of one deposited by him in the Post Office Department, the design and construction of which were carefully specified in the contract, the United States, on its part, agreeing to pay $5.50 for each box furnished and put up according to order.

A few days after this contract was executed, namely, September

Page 163 U. S. 50

27th, Strong assigned to one Gideon L. Walker all his interest in the two patents above mentioned, as well as his interest in and to a certain invention in street letter boxes, for which he claimed he had prepared and filed specifications preparatory to obtaining a patent therefor. But whether such patent was ever issued did not appear.

The letter boxes so contracted to be furnished by Strong were actually furnished by him, and were the letter boxes for which he had secured a patent for what is known as the "flat-top" letter box. But in consequence of complaints made to the Postmaster General to the effect that such boxes were too wide, unsightly in appearance, and unsatisfactory, he called together at Washington a convention of postmasters and other postal officials to consult with regard to the general good of the service. Before this convention, which met in January, 1870, the Postmaster General laid for inspection several models of letter boxes, including the one then in use, furnished by Strong under his contract, but the convention rejected all such models and, endeavoring to avoid conflict with any existing patent, devised a letter box based upon their own experience, and by a communication addressed to the Postmaster General dated January 15, 1870, recommended the adoption of a box

"about one and a half feet in length, about six inches in depth and twelve inches in width, with an opening at the top sufficiently large to receive newspapers and magazines, the opening or receptacles especially protected from the weather with a curved top to carry off the water, and a door in the side or front, with side flanges. to take the matter from, and that the hours for collection be distinctly shown upon the outside of the box."

At the same time and in the same communication, they condemned the street letter box "now furnished the department under the contract known as the Strong patent."

Pursuant to such recommendations, a letter box was devised and adopted by the Postmaster General, known as the "round-top," and Strong was engaged to model, manufacture, and furnish to the Post Office Department such boxes, with such alterations and improvements therein as the Postmaster

Page 163 U. S. 51

General might suggest, and in pursuance thereof a written contract was entered into between Strong and the defendant on February 18, 1870, to continue in force for four years thereafter. This contract, in terms, superseded and annulled the contract theretofore made on September 15, 1869. Under this contract of February 18, 1870, Strong modeled and manufactured boxes with such alterations and improvements therein as were suggested by the Postmaster General until boxes giving satisfaction to the Postmaster General had been made, and the boxes so modeled and manufactured by said Strong were the boxes furnished by him to and for the use of the Post Office Department, under and during the existence of his said contract, and none other, for which he was paid $5.50 for each of the small size and $7.50 for each of the large size of said boxes.

A few days prior to the expiration of the said contract, namely, on February 11, 1874, Strong filed in the Patent Office a caveat, and on March 9th an application and specifications, claiming to be the inventor of the cast-iron street letter box so devised and adopted by the Postmaster General as aforesaid, which letter box, so devised and adopted by the Postmaster General, was modeled and manufactured by Strong under the instructions of the Postmaster General, as provided should be done in his contract, and the said boxes so modeled, manufactured, and furnished by said Strong were in public use in the letter carrier cities of the United States for more than two years prior to his application for a patent thereon.

Pending such application, and on July 29, 874, the Postmaster General addressed a letter to the Commissioner of Patents saying that the department had been informed by Strong that he had taken out two caveats to protect his alleged rights to a certain street letter box now in use by authority of the department, stating that such box had been in use for four years under contract with Strong of February 18, 1870, and had been recommended by the convention of postmasters, reduced to shape and form by Strong, as described by them and could in no just sense be considered

Page 163 U. S. 52

as the invention of Strong, he having simply carried out the views of the convention in this respect.

On January 26, 1881, Strong assigned all his interest in the letters patent and the invention to the claimant, but it did not appear that Gideon L. Walker, to whom Strong had theretofore executed an assignment in writing, as before mentioned, consented to such assignment to the claimant or anyone else on the application of September 4, 1869, referred to in said written assignment.

After the filing of the original petition in this case, to-wit, October 27, 1891, there was issued to the claimant, George E. Kirk, assignee of said Samuel Strong, letters patent No. 462,224, which patent covers the same and identical street letter box accepted by the Postmaster General, known as the "round-top," which was modeled and manufactured by Strong, as hereinbefore set forth.

Subsequently to February 18, 1874, the date of the expiration of the contract with Strong, the Postmaster General contracted with the Union Foundry & Manufacturing Company, of Reading, Pennsylvania, and others at divers times to manufacture and furnish for the use of the Post Office Department the same and identical kind of street letter box theretofore modeled, manufactured, and furnished by said Strong under his contract as aforesaid, and it does not appear that the contracts for the boxes to be furnished were with the knowledge or consent of said Strong or claimant.

During the six years prior to filing of the original petition and up to the date of filing of the last amended petition, January 15, 1892, there were purchased for the use of the Post Office Department about 35,000 such letter boxes, a reasonable royalty for the use of which would be one dollar per box.

Upon the foregoing finding of facts the Court of Claims decided as a conclusion of law that the claimant was not entitled to recover, and the petition was therefore dismissed. Thereupon petitioner appealed to this Court.

Page 163 U. S. 53



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