October 6 was a momentous day in the history of the motion picture. In 1889, Thomas Edison, perhaps America’s greatest inventor, displayed the first motion picture, Monkeyshines, a film produced using the kinetograph, a motion picture camera created by Edison’s assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. An experimental film, Monkeyshines featured lab workers gesturing to the camera. Although Eadweard Muybridge is often credited with creating the first motion picture in 1878 with his film depicting a galloping racehorse, Muybridge’s picture consisted of several still photographs. Tripwires, triggered by the moving horse, activated the shutters of the 24 cameras set up around the track. Muybridge went on to develop the zoopraxiscope, a device that projected a series of still images. Coincidentally, a lecture given by Muybridge inspired Edison to work on motion pictures.
Thirty-eight years later, the motion picture industry celebrated another milestone when, on October 6, 1927, The Jazz Singer, the first motion picture to feature synchronized sound, was released. Although the film has been considered, at times, to be mediocre at best, the technology that created the talking picture was the spark that ignited audiences’ curiosity and turned the motion picture industry on its ear. This new sound technology, Vitaphone, was developed by Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. It was a sound-on-disc system, as opposed to a sound-on-film system. Sound was stored on phonograph discs, which were then “run off the same motor as the projector, thus assuring that if the cuing mark on the disc was lined up with the cuing frame on the film, the sound would be in synchronization.” Although more than 100 theatres in the United States were equipped with the Vitaphone system by 1927, the technology was practically obsolete by the early 1930s, as several companies developed sound-on-film technology.
As with any new technology, these early advancements in the motion picture industry led to litigation and the need for inventions to have the protection offered by a patent, a property right that is granted to the creator of an invention. (For an overview of the different types of intellectual property, please see the Legal Information Institute’s discussion of this topic). Here, in the United States, patents are issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. This property right excludes others “from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention. Thus, during this time of rapid development and ingenious invention, it was important for inventors to have their inventions protected and thus patented. Edison filed patents for his kinetographic camera and kinetoscope, the viewer used to watch the moving images, in 1891, and received the applied-for patents on August 31, 1897. Despite being the holder of the patents, Edison met with limited success in lawsuits he brought defending the validity of his patent and challenging instances of infringement. One key defendant in theses patent cases was American Mutoscope, Co., later American Mutoscope & Biograph Co., a motion picture company began by Dickson, Edison’s former assistant who was instrumental in developing the kinetograph. (See Edison v. American Mutoscope, 114 F. 926 (1902) and Edison v. American Mutoscope & Biograph Co., 151 F. 767 (1907)). As a result of increased competition, Edison and rival Biograph Co. formed a trade association, a sort of patent pool, known as the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), which, in essence, created a monopoly over the production and distribution of motion pictures. The MPPC, also referred to as the Edison Trust, “eliminated the outright sale of films to distributors and exhibitors…established a uniform rental rate for all licensed films…established a monopoly on all aspects of filmmaking…and controlled patents on motion picture cameras.”
MPPC could not hold onto its monopoly for long. Several factors, including the expiration of patents and the outbreak of World War I, led to the eventual demise of the MPPC. Of course, United States v. Motion Picture Patents Co., 225 F. 800 (1915), played a major role in its split. In that case, petitioner United States, alleging that the “combination of the defendants” amounted to an unlawful restraint of trade and obstructed the free flow of commerce, sought to put an end to the MPPC, pursuant to the act of July 2, 1890, or the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The court agreed, finding that
the defendants did, in furtherance of the scheme of the combination so to do, directly impose upon the trade undue and unreasonable restraint, and that such restraint was the end proposed to be directly reached, and was not merely incidental to efforts to protect the rights granted by the patents, but went far beyond the fair and normal possible scope of any efforts to protect such rights, and that as a direct and intended result of such undue and unreasonable restrictions the defendants have monopolized a large part of the interstate trade and commerce in films, cameras, projecting machines, and other articles of commerce accessory to the motion picture business. At 811. United States v. Motion Picture Pats. Co., 225 F. 800, 811 (E.D. Pa. 1915)
Although defendants had initially appealed, the appeal was dismissed by stipulation. That decision was reportedly prompted by the holding in Motion Picture Patents Company v. Universal Film Manufacturing Company, et al., 243 U.S. 502 (1917), in which the Court dismissed a suit to enjoin the violation of an alleged license restriction on the use of a machine that incorporated an improvement covered by a patent.
The motion picture certainly has come a long way from the days of the kinetoscope and the efforts of these early pioneers and inventors. Now, as then, as technology continues to evolve, the need to protect one’s creative inventions will certainly still exist. One cannot help but wonder what Edison’s reaction would be to such technological advancements as CGI, camera rigs, and green screens. In 1927, it was “You ain’t heard nothing yet.” Today, it’s “to infinity and beyond!”
Thomas A. Edison Papers – Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences
History of Edison Motion Pictures – Library of Congress
Antitrust Laws – Federal Trade Commission
Patents – United States Patent and Trademark Office