Bement v. National Harrow Co.
186 U.S. 70 (1902)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Bement v. National Harrow Co., 186 U.S. 70 (1902)

Bement v. National Harrow Company

No. 216

Argued April 9-10, 1902

Decided May 19, 1902

186 U.S. 70

Syllabus

Anyone sued upon a contract may set up as a defense that it is a violation of an act of Congress.

The object of the patent 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, and the fact that the conditions in the contracts keep up the monopoly, does not render them illegal. The prohibition 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; but it would be unreasonable to so construe the provision, as to prevent the defendant from using any letters patent legally obtained by it and not infringing patents owned by others.

Upon the facts found, there was no error in the judgment of the court of appeals, and it is affirmed.

This is a writ of error to the supreme court of the State of New York, to which court the record had been remitted after a decision of the case by the Court of Appeals. The action was brought by the plaintiff below, the defendant in error here,

Page 186 U. S. 71

a corporation, to recover the amount of liquidated damages arising out of an alleged violation by the defendant below, the plaintiff in error here, also a corporation, of certain contracts executed between the parties in relation to the manufacture and sale of what are termed in the contracts "float spring tooth harrows," their frames, and attachments applicable thereto, under letters patent owned by the plaintiff. The action was also brought to restrain the future violation of such contracts, and to compel their specific performance by the defendant. The case was tried before a referee pursuant to the statute of New York providing therefor, and he ordered judgment in favor of the plaintiff for over $20,000, besides enjoining the defendant from violating its contract with the plaintiff and directing their specific performance as continuing contracts. This judgment was reversed by the appellate division of the supreme court, and an order made granting a new trial, but on appeal from such order the Court of Appeals reversed it and affirmed the original judgment. The defendant brings the case here by writ of error.

The particular character of the action appears from the pleadings. The complaint, after alleging the incorporation of both parties to the action, the plaintiff in New Jersey and the defendant in Michigan, averred that, about April 1, 1891, the plaintiff's assignor, a New York corporation, entered with the defendant into certain license contracts, called therein Exhibits A and B. The substance of contract A is as follows: it stated that the plaintiff was the owner of certain letters patent of the United States, which had been issued to other parties and were then owned by the plaintiff, for improvements relating to float spring tooth harrows, harrow frames, and attachments applicable thereto, eighty-five of which patents were enumerated, and that the defendant desired to acquire the right to use in its business of manufacturing at Lansing, in the State of Michigan, and to sell throughout the United States, under such patents or some one or more of them, and under all other patented rights owned or thereafter acquired by the plaintiff, which applied to and embraced the peculiar construction employed by the defendant, during the term of such patents, or either or any

Page 186 U. S. 72

thereof, applicable to and embracing such construction. The plaintiff then, in and by such contract, gave and granted to the defendant the license and privilege of using the rights under those patents in its business of manufacturing, marketing, and vending to others to be used, float spring tooth harrows, float spring tooth harrow frames without teeth, and attachments applicable thereto, a sample of the harrow frames and attachments the defendant was licensed to manufacture and sell, being (as stated) in the possession of the treasurer of the plaintiff, and marked and numbered as set forth in schedule A, which was made a part of the license. The license was granted upon the terms therein set forth, which were as follows:

(1) The defendant was to pay a royalty of one dollar for each float spring tooth harrow or frame sold by it pursuant to the license, to be paid to the plaintiff at its office in the City of Utica, in the State of New York.

(2) The defendant was to make verified reports of its business each month and mail them to the plaintiff, and the defendant agreed that it would not ship these harrows to any person, firm, or corporation to be sold on commission, or allow any rebate or reduction from the price or prices fixed in the license, except to settle with an insolvent debtor for harrows previously sold and delivered.

(3) The defendant agreed that it would not, during the continuance of the license, sell its products manufactured under the license at a less price or on more favorable terms of payment and delivery to the purchasers than was set forth in schedule B, which was made a part of the license, except as thereinafter provided.

(4) The plaintiff reserved the right to decrease the selling price and to make the terms of payment and delivery more favorable to the purchasers, and it might reduce the royalty on the harrows manufactured under the license.

(5) The plaintiff agreed to furnish license labels to the defendant, which were to be affixed to each article sold, and the amount of ten cents paid for each of such labels was to be credited and allowed on the royalty paid by the defendant at the time of such payment.

Page 186 U. S. 73

(6) The defendant agreed that it would not, during the continuance of the license, be directly or indirectly engaged in the manufacture or sale of any other float spring tooth harrows, etc., than those which it was licensed to manufacture and make under the terms of the license, except such as it might manufacture and furnish another licensee of the National Harrow Company, and then only such constructions thereof as such other licensee should be licensed by the plaintiff to manufacture and sell, except such other style and construction as it might be licensed to manufacture and sell by the plaintiff.

(7) The defendant agreed to pay to the plaintiff for each and every of the articles sold contrary to the strict terms and provisions of the license, the sum of five dollars, which sum was thereby agreed upon and fixed as liquidated damages.

(8) The defendant agreed not to, directly or indirectly, in any way, contest the validity of any patent applicable to and embracing the construction which the defendant was licensed to manufacture, or which it might manufacture for another licensee, which such other licensee was itself licensed to manufacture or sell, or the reissues thereof, and no act of either party should invalidate this admission. The defendant also agreed not to alter or change the construction of the float spring tooth harrows, float spring tooth harrow frames without teeth, or attachments applicable thereto, which it was authorized to manufacture and sell under the license, in any part or portions thereof which embody any of the inventions covered by the letters patent, or any of them, or any reissues thereof.

(9) The plaintiff agreed that, after the license was delivered, it would not grant licenses, or let to any other person, the right to manufacture the articles named, of the peculiar style and construction or embodying the peculiar features thereof used by the defendant, as illustrated and embodied in the sample harrow then placed in the possession of the treasurer of the plaintiff, and referred to in schedule A of the license.

(10) Nothing contained in the license was to authorize the defendant to manufacture or vend, directly or indirectly, any other or different style of harrow than duplicates of such samples

Page 186 U. S. 74

as had been deposited by it with the plaintiff, and such as were embraced in the license.

(11) Any departure from the terms of the license might at the option of the plaintiff be treated as a breach of the license, and the licensee might be treated as an infringer, or the plaintiff might restrain the breach thereof in a suit brought for that purpose and obtain an injunction, the licensee waiving any right of trial by jury; such remedy was to be in addition to the liquidated damages already provided for.

(12) The termination of the license by the plaintiff was not to release the defendant from its obligation to pay for articles sold up to the termination of the license.

(13) The plaintiff agreed to defend the defendant in any suit brought for an alleged infringement.

(14) No royalties were to be paid for articles exported for use in a foreign country.

(15) The license was personal to the licensee, and not assignable, except to the successors of the defendant in the same place and business, without the written consent of the plaintiff, nor were the royalties or other sums specified to cease to be paid under any circumstances, except under the conditions named in the license, during the continuance thereof.

(16) The parties agreed that the license should continue during the term of the patent or patents applicable to the license, and during the term of any reissues thereof.

(17) The place of the performance of the agreement was the City of Utica, New York, and the agreement was to be construed and the rights of the parties thereunder determined according to the laws of New York.

(18) The consideration of the contract or license was one dollar, paid by each of the parties to the other, and the covenants contained therein to be performed by the other, and it applied to and bound the parties thereto, their successors, heirs, and assigns.

Schedule A, which followed, contained a description of the particular kinds of harrow which the defendant was authorized to make and sell under the license. Schedule B contained a statement of the prices and terms of sale under the license, and it was

Page 186 U. S. 75

therein stated that

"a maximum discount of forty-two percent may be allowed on sales of harrows, frames, and teeth in the following territory: all of the New England states, also states of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. A maximum discount of forty-five percent may be allowed on all sales in the territory throughout the United States not mentioned above."

This contract or license was signed by the president of the National Harrow Company for the plaintiff, and A. O. Bement, president of the defendant corporation, for the defendant.

The other license, called Exhibit B, was in substance the same as Exhibit A, excepting that the privilege of sale for the articles manufactured was that portion of the territory embraced within the United States lying south and west of Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and there was some difference in the machines which the defendant was authorized to manufacture and sell under this license, and in regard to the prices to be charged for those machines not covered by the former contract or license.

These two agreements were, as stated, made parts of the plaintiff's complaint, and the plaintiff then set forth various alleged violations of the two agreements on the part of the defendant, and claimed a recovery of a large amount of damages under the provisions of the contracts, and prayed for an injunction restraining future violations, and for a specific performance of the contracts.

The plaintiff also alleged that the plaintiff's assignor, the New York corporation, duly assigned to the plaintiff all its rights and interests in regard to the subject matter of the two contracts, and that the plaintiff at the time of the commencement of the action, was the lawful owner of all such interests and rights, and was entitled to bring the action in its own name.

To this complaint the defendant made answer, denying many of its allegations, and setting up certain other agreements which it alleged had been made by the plaintiff and other parties, including defendant, and which, as averred, amounted to a combination of all the manufacturers and dealers in patent harrows, to regulate their manufacture and to provide for their sale and

Page 186 U. S. 76

the prices thereof throughout the United States. It was also in the answer averred that such contracts had been pronounced to be void by the supreme court of New York, and the contracts now before the court were, as contended by defendant, but a continuation and a part of the other contracts already declared void, and that these contracts between the parties to this action were also void. It is also alleged that all of the various contracts were in violation of the Act of Congress approved July 2, 1890, being chapter 647 of the first session of the Fifty-first Congress (26 Stat. 209), entitled "An Act to Protect Trade and Commerce against Unlawful Restraints and Monopolies."

The case was referred to a referee to hear and decide, who, after hearing the testimony, reported in favor of the plaintiff. The material portions of his report are as follows:

"That for some time prior to the month of September, 1890, the spring tooth harrow business was conducted by the following-named parties: D. C. & H. C. Reed & Company, of Kalamazoo, Mich.; G. B. Olin & Company, Perry and Canandaigua, N.Y.; Chase, Taylor & Company, W. S. Lawrence, doing business under the name of Lawrence & Chapin, both of Kalamazoo, Mich.; J. M. Childs & Company, of Utica, N.Y., and A. W. Stevens & Son, of Auburn, N.Y. -- who began the harrow business in substantially the order named above."

"The first two above-named firms conducted their business in separate portions or territory of the United States, under the same United States letters patent, and the other firms began their business in hostility to the same letters patent. The first two firms began a number of patent lawsuits against the other firms and their customers for infringement of patents. These suits were vigorously prosecuted, and the court finally decided the patents valid, and ordered an accounting of profits, against the firm of Chase, Taylor & Company, and W. S. Lawrence."

"Prior to September, 1890, the last four of the above-named firms settled their disputes over patents with the first two firms, and took licenses under their letters patent. Considerable sums of money were paid in settlement of these disputes and rights, and prior to said date, September, 1890, there was no other relation between the first two firms named and the other parties

Page 186 U. S. 77

than that of licensor and licensee under United States letters patent."

"In the year 1890, and just prior thereto, other persons, firms, and corporations began the spring tooth harrow business, and other patent lawsuits followed. Suits were begun against the defendants herein, and against their customers purchasing their spring tooth harrows, and one case had gone to final decree, in which the defendant was ordered to account for profits and damages, and an injunction had been granted in another suit. Proceedings were pending upon an application for rehearing in these cases."

"In September, 1890, the six firms first above named decided to organize a corporation known as the National Harrow Company of New York, with a view to transferring various United States letters patent owned by the six firms respectively to said corporation, and for the purpose of conducting the manufacture of some part or portion of the material which entered into their spring tooth harrow business."

"In the conduct of the spring tooth harrow business, the harrows came to be known in the market as 'float spring tooth harrows;' that name having been adopted to differentiate the harrows from those known in the market as 'wheel harrows,' which had frame bars and curved spring teeth supported from an axle above, which axle had wheels at either end of the diameter above thirty inches. The two classes of harrows were differentiated, one being called a 'float' and the other a 'wheel' spring tooth harrow. The litigations had been wholly over the 'float' spring tooth harrows."

"The members composing the first six firms above named in the harrow business in September, 1890, organized under the laws of the State of New York the 'National Harrow Company.' That corporation was duly legally incorporated, and after its incorporation it received from the said six firms the transfer of their separate United States letters patent, license contracts, and privileges under patents. The defendant's president, Arthur O. Bement, became and continued a director of this corporation until its dissolution, which followed in a little over a year. "

Page 186 U. S. 78

"This corporation entered into some contracts with spring tooth harrow manufacturers, which were decided by the supreme court of the State of New York to be illegal as against public policy, on account of restraints contained in the contracts, which extended beyond the lifetime of the patents. That case is reported in the New York Supplement, vol. 18, page 224. Strait v. National Harrow Co."

"Immediately following this decision, all of the contracts then in existence which were affected thereby were immediately cancelled by the parties to such contracts."

"The defendant, E. Bement & Sons, in the fall of 1890, entered into a contract with the National Harrow Company, looking to the selling of its patents and rights under patents relating to the spring tooth harrow business, but this contract was abandoned; the conditions upon which it was executed not having been complied with, the contract became and was wholly void."

"The defendant had no contract with the National Harrow Company until about June 16 or 17, 1891 at which time several contracts were entered into between the defendant and the National Harrow Company of New York. Among other contracts, the defendant 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 related to the defendant's float spring tooth harrow business. Such contracts constituted an absolute sale of the property and privileges thereby transferred, and the defendant agreed to accept in payment thereof the paid-up capital stock of the National Harrow Company of New York, and the value of the rights transferred were by agreement between the parties fixed and determined by arbitration, under which arbitration the defendant was awarded and the value was fixed at upwards of $29,000. The defendant was dissatisfied with the amount of the award, and such dissatisfaction and difference was afterwards adjusted by an agreement to issue to the defendant and the defendant to accept an additional amount of $16,000 of said capital stock. That, by agreement, in the place of the said capital stock of the New York company, the defendant accepted

Page 186 U. S. 79

and agreed to take the stock of the plaintiff in this action, and there has been issued to the defendant and the defendant has received the capital stock of this plaintiff in an amount upwards of $45,000 in payment for the property and rights sold and transferred by the defendant to the National Harrow Company of New York. That said upwards of $45,000 of stock was issued to the president of the defendant for defendant's benefit, and on said stock defendant has received several cash dividends."

"The transaction between the National Harrow Company of New York and this defendant, had in June, 1891, was intended by the parties to be an absolute sale by the defendant to the National Harrow Company of New York of the United States letters patent and licenses under United States letters patent relating to the float spring tooth harrow business conducted by the defendant, and it was founded on a good, valuable, and adequate consideration moving between the parties."

"That, as a part of such transaction, the National Harrow Company of New York granted, issued, and delivered to the defendant the license contracts A and B, which are attached to the complaint in this action and made a part thereof. Upon the consummation of the transaction in June, 1891, the controversy over patents and infringements existing between the first six firms named above and the defendant and its customers was settled. The papers which were executed in June, 1891, were all dated as of April 1, 1891, and were to take effect as of that date. At the date of the execution and delivery of the license contracts A and B, the National Harrow Company of New York was the owner by assignment and purchase of a large number of United States letters patent, which it is claimed fully monopolized and covered the defendant's float spring tooth harrow business."

"The sale by the defendant of its letters patent and license rights and privileges to the National Harrow Company of New York, and the signing and delivering of license contracts A and B, were intended to and did settle existing controversies with reference to the rights of the National Harrow Company of New York and the defendant. "

Page 186 U. S. 80

"I decide 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 restraint upon the defendant beyond those which the parties had a right, from the nature of the transaction, to impose and accept."

"In July, 1891, a corporation was organized under the laws of the State of New Jersey, known and designated as the National Harrow Company, which corporation is the plaintiff in this action. None of the parties organizing this corporation were in the spring tooth harrow business. The New Jersey corporation was duly and legally organized in conformity with the laws of that state, and was by those laws and its charter authorized to purchase United States letters patent, and to grant licenses under United States letters patent, and to conduct the manufacturing business, and had a variety of other rights and privileges under its charter and said statutes. That this corporation, the plaintiff, still is a legal and valid corporation, entitled to hold and enjoy such of its property as it now or may hereafter own or acquire, and that it was not organized in hostility to any rule of public policy."

"That the National Harrow Company of New Jersey, this plaintiff, through its duly constituted officers, purchased from the National Harrow Company of New York all of its various United States letters patent, and all contracts, licenses, and privileges which the National Harrow Company of New York then owned and possessed, and also purchased a part of its other property, rights, and privileges."

"That on the 9th of September, 1891, a formal transfer in writing was made from the National Harrow Company of New York to the National Harrow Company of New Jersey of the property and rights sold as aforesaid by the former company to the latter, which transfer was founded on a good, valuable, and adequate consideration moving between the parties, and which transfer was sanctioned by the directors and stockholders of the New York corporation, and by the officers and

Page 186 U. S. 81

directors of the National Harrow Company of New Jersey, this plaintiff, and separate assignments in writing were made of the various United States letters patent from the New York corporation to the New Jersey corporation."

"I decide that this transfer was in all respects legal and valid, being founded on a good and valuable consideration, and that it vested in the plaintiff in this action all the rights, privileges, and benefits accruing to the New York corporation under its contracts with the defendant, including contracts A and B, which contracts have been slightly modified by the parties as to price and terms of sale."

"The defendant's president, Arthur O. Bement, became a director and an active manager of the plaintiff, and continued as such down to September, 1893."

"The defendant made monthly verified reports to this plaintiff down to and including the 8th of September, 1893, of the harrows embraced in contracts A and B, by such reports stating the total harrows sold to be 13,900, on which defendant paid to the plaintiff a royalty of $13,900."

"The National Harrow Company of New York and this plaintiff have performed all of the stipulations and provisions in the contracts entered into between the National Harrow Company of New York and this defendant, including all the provisions of contracts A and B, and the plaintiff is now ready, willing, and able to perform all of the stipulations and agreements to be performed on its part as assignee of the National Harrow Company of New York."

"That the defendant, after having received and retained large pecuniary benefits under the contracts, has failed, neglected, and refused, and still fails, neglects, and refuses, to keep and perform its contracts entered into, including the stipulations and provisions contained in contracts A and B, and since September, 1893, it has wholly repudiated contracts A and B, and refused to perform any of the stipulations contained therein which it agreed to do and perform, and it has broken and violated all of the stipulations and agreements contained in contracts A and B which it agreed to do and perform."

The referee then states with some detail the various violations

Page 186 U. S. 82

of the license agreements by the defendant, and finds the defendant indebted to the plaintiff in the sum of over $20,000. He then continues as follows:

"I decide that the plaintiff is a legal and valid corporation authorized to enforce its rights in courts having jurisdiction, and that all of the contracts in evidence were and are legal, valid, and binding contracts, such as might reasonably be made under the circumstances, founded upon an adequate consideration, and that they embodied no illegal restraints, and are not repugnant to any rule of public policy as in restraint of trade or tending to create a monopoly, trust, or any other illegal combination, and that the contracts entered into between the defendant and the National Harrow Company of New York, including 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."

The referee then held the plaintiff entitled to a judgment against the defendant, declaring the validity of the plaintiff corporation and its title to the contracts and their validity, and decreeing specific performance thereof, and restraining future violations of the contracts by the defendant. Judgment in accordance with the report was entered, from which the defendant appealed to the appellate division of the supreme court.

Some difficulties regarding the form in which the case was presented to that court arose upon the argument, and it was therefore suspended, and the case sent back to the referee for a resettlement, which was subsequently agreed upon by counsel for the respective parties, who entered into a stipulation in regard to what was to be reviewed by the courts above, and, among other things, it was agreed between counsel

"that the foregoing record, as amended and corrected in this stipulation, contains all of the evidence given and proceedings had before the referee material to the questions to be raised on this appeal by the appellant, which questions to be raised by the appellant on this appeal are to be only as follows."

Those questions are eight in number, the fourth of which is:

"Whether or not the contracts A and B are valid under the act of Congress approved July 2, 1890, chapter 647 of the first

Page 186 U. S. 83

session of the Fifty-first Congress."

This is the only federal question raised and appearing in the record.

The case was thereupon argued before the appellate division, which reversed the judgment and ordered a new trial, but it did not state in its order of reversal that the judgment was reversed on questions of fact as well as of law. The plaintiff then appealed to the Court of Appeals from the order granting a new trial, and after argument it was held by that court that it had no jurisdiction to review the facts, and that, upon the findings of the referee there had been no error of law committed, and consequently the supreme court was wrong in reversing the judgment. The court therefore reversed the judgment of the supreme court, and affirmed the judgment entered upon the report of the referee.

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