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decided: May 4, 1896.



Author: Brown

[ 163 U.S. Page 53]

 MR. JUSTICE BROWN, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

In his amended petition of January 26, 1891, claimant asserts himself to be the assignee of the improvements made by Strong, for which the two patents of March 31 and August 31, 1869, were issued; as well as the assignee of another patent, issued February 7, 1882; and also of an application for still another of March 9, 1874. He sets forth the contracts of September 15, 1869, and February 18, 1870, and the performance of the same, and alleges that, "at the termination and expiration of said contract, the said Samuel Strong applied to the Postmaster of the United States for a renewal of the same; and that, notwithstanding a verbal understanding and promise on the part of the said Postmaster General, made at the time of the execution of the said contract, that there would be such a renewal, said renewal was denied to said Samuel Strong, and no further renewal of said contract has since been made by and between the said parties thereto."

The gist of his complaint is that, after the expiration of the contract, the government continued to use the boxes that had theretofore been manufactured by Strong; that all such letter-boxes "were covered by the claims of the aforesaid application for letters-patent of March 9, 1874, and included by said contracts, and now owned by said claimant;" that such use was in violation of the rights of claimant, in virtue of his said assignment; that since February 18, 1874, the government has refused to renew this contract with Strong, or to pay him anything for the use of the boxes, and that he is entitled to the sum of $3.50 upon each of said boxes used, under an implied contract to pay for the same.

His allegation with regard to the patent for which application was filed March 9, 1874, is that the application therefor was examined by the primary examiner and rejected; that an

[ 163 U.S. Page 54]

     appeal was taken to the examiners in chief, which reversed the decision of the primary examiner, and held that Strong was entitled to a patent; that, in accordance with such judgment, the Commissioner of Patents allowed the claims, received the final fee, and ordered the patent to issue, but, notwithstanding all that, "still withholds the patent for reasons known only to himself, and entirely contrary to the said express mandate of law."

In an amended petition, filed January 15, 1892, claimant sets forth that a patent was issued to him on October 27, 1891, in pursuance of the application of March 9, 1874, and that on January 15, 1870, a convention of postmasters, which met at Washington, recommended for adoption to the Postmaster General the boxes filed with the board, and known as the Strong boxes, and that it was the intention and understanding of the Postmaster General that the invention so adopted should be used by the government, and a reasonable and just compensation made for the use of the same.

In this connection, however, it is found by the Court of Claims that the two patents of 1869 were, on the 27th day of September of that year, assigned to Gideon L. Walker, and consequently that Kirk took nothing by the assignment to him of the same patents of January 6, 1881; and that the patent of February 7, 1882, was not included in the assignment to Kirk, but still appeared to be owned by Strong. It follows that the only invention or patent in which claimant appears to have any interest is that known as the "round-top" box, which claimant holds by authority of the assignment of January 6, 1881, for which letters-patent were vener issued until 1891, seventeen years after Strong's contract with the government had expired. The court further found that the round-top letter-box was devised and adopted by the Postmaster General himself; that Strong was employed to model, manufacture and furnish these boxes for a term of four years, with such alterations and improvements therein as the Postmaster General might suggest; that a few days before the expiration of this contract, Strong filed a caveat in the Patent Office and made application for a patent for the

[ 163 U.S. Page 55]

     boxes so devised and adopted by the Postmaster General, which letter-box had been manufactured by Strong under his instructions; and that they had been in public use for more than two years prior to March 9, 1874, when Strong filed his application therefor; that the Postmaster General protested against the grant of a patent to Strong, and that the same was not granted until seventeen years thereafter.

Discarding, then, the patents of 1869 and 1872 as immaterial, the case resolves itself into the question whether the assignee of a person who did not invent the letter-box in dispute, who had no patent for it until after the suit was commenced, who had no contract to manufacture it, and who finally obtained a patent against the protest of the government's agent, can recover of the government a royalty for the use of the device upon the theory of an implied promise to pay for such use. There can be but one answer to this proposition.

The application of Strong to patent a letter-box which he did not invent was naturally suggested by the fact that his contract for manufacturing the same was about expiring, and he desired to foreclose others from obtaining a further contract by securing a patent for the box. If a patentee could under any circumstances sue to recover for the use of a patented article, made before letters were granted, (as to which it was held in Gayler v. Wilder, 10 How. 477, 493; Brown v. Duchesne, 19 How. 183, 195; Marsh v. Nichols, 128 U.S. 605, 612; Sargent v. Seagrave, 2 Curt. 553, 555; and Rein v. Clayton, 37 Fed. Rep. 354, that an inventor has no exclusive right before a patent has been issued,) it certainly could not apply to a case where the patentee was not the inventor of the thing patented; where the device had been in public use for more than two years before the patent was applied for; and where the government, so far from agreeing to pay a royalty for it, had ...

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