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decided: April 25, 1892.




Author: Brown

[ 145 U.S. Page 37]

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

1. Defendants attack the title of the plaintiff to this patent upon the ground that Poinier, who bought the patent of Taylor in 1872, and subsequently, in 1878, sold it to Sessions, had, prior to such sale, and in September, 1876, been duly adjudicated a bankrupt in the District Court of the United States for the District of New Jersey, and an assignee appointed, in whom, it is claimed, the legal title to the patent

[ 145 U.S. Page 38]

     vested. It seems, however, that Poinier did not include this patent in his schedule of assets, upon the ground, as he said, of its being unproductive property and of no value. Indeed, all that he seems to have done with the patent was to make a lot of trunk fasteners in 1872, which proved to be failures, and which appear to have been the cause of his insolvency. He made no others for the three years before he went into bankruptcy. On May 15, 1877, he received his discharge, and on November 27 of the same year his assignee was discharged. On June 12, 1878, thirteen months after Poinier had received his discharge, and six months after his assignee had been discharged, Sessions bought a shop right of Poinier, for which he paid him $500, and in the same year purchased the patent itself, for which he paid him $1000 additional. Mr. Shepard, who acted as the agent of the plaintiff in making this purchase, testifies that he went to Newark on the morning of June 6, 1878, and inquired for Henry W. Poinier. "I was informed that one Mr. Miller was his assignee, and that I could learn of his affairs by seeing him. I then went to the office of Mr. Miller and found him there, introduced myself, and told him that I had come to see him about a patent for a trunk fastener which was owned by Henry W. Poinier, and under which said Poinier had been making trunk fasteners; and I asked Mr. Miller if he would sell me said patent, or give me a shop right thereunder, as the assignee of Mr. Poinier. Mr. Miller replied that he could not do so; that the estate was all settled up; he had made his return to the court, and had been discharged as assignee, and he had no power to do anything in the matter. I asked him what I could do, and he said the only thing was to go to Mr. Poinier; that Poinier was the only one who could give me any title. . . . I learned that Mr. Poinier was in Rochester." While the assignee does not recollect the conversation, there is nothing to disprove Mr. Sessions's version of it; nor is it strange that Miller did not recollect it, as he acted as assignee in some six or seven hundred cases, and could hardly be expected to remember all the transactions connected with them. It is undisputed that Shepard went to Newark to find Poinier, and subsequently went to

[ 145 U.S. Page 39]

     Rochester and found him there. The first assignment from Poinier was executed August 16, 1878, and conveyed only the title to the patent itself; but a second assignment, bearing date September 24, included also all rights of action for infringement from the date that Poinier himself acquired the title to it.

While, under the provisions of the bankrupt law, the title to this patent undoubtedly passed to the assignee in bankruptcy of Poinier, it passed subject to an election on his part not to accept it, if, in his opinion, it was worthless, or would prove to be burdensome and unprofitable. And he was entitled to a reasonable time to elect whether he would accept it or not. American File Co. v. Garrett, 110 U.S. 288, 295; Sparhawk v. Yerkes, 142 U.S. 1; Amory v. Lawrence, 3 Cliff. 523, 535.

In this case the assignee had taken a year to wind up the estate, and had given no sign of his wish to assume this property, if indeed he knew of its existence. On being asked with reference to it by the proposed purchaser, he replied that the estate was all settled up, that he had no power to do anything in the matter, and that Poinier was the only one who could give a title. A plainer election not to accept can hardly be imagined. Granting that up to that time he had known nothing about the patent, it was his duty to inquire into the matter if he had any thought of accepting it, and not to mislead the plaintiff's agent by referring him to the bankrupt as the proper person to apply to. Under the circumstances, plaintiff could do nothing but purchase of Poinier. Bearing in mind that no claim to this property is now made by the assignee, but that his alleged title to it is set up by a third person, who confessedly has no interest in it himself, it is entirely clear that the defendants ought not to prevail as against a purchaser who bought it of the bankrupt after the assignee had disclaimed any interest in it.

Had the existence of this patent been concealed by the bankrupt, or the assignee had discovered it subsequently -- after his discharge -- and desired to take possession of it for the benefit of the estate, it is possible the bankruptcy court

[ 145 U.S. Page 40]

     might reopen the case and vacate the discharge for that purpose.Clark v. Clark, 17 How. 315. But it does not lie in the mouth of an alleged infringer to set up the right of the assignee as against a title from the bankrupt acquired with the consent of such assignee.

It is quite evident from the facts stated that this patent, which seems to have been the cause of Poinier's insolvency, was thought to be of little or no value, that the assignee so regarded it, and that its real value was only discovered when the plaintiff had brought to bear upon the manufacture of the device his own skill and enterprise.

2. Defendants are charged with infringing the third claim of the Taylor patent, which was for a spring fastener, modifications of which are now in almost universal use, as a substitute for the old-fashioned strap and buckle. Upon the hearing in the court below, it was claimed the patent was invalid by reason of the joinder of distinct inventions in the same patent -- inventions, which, though applicable to the same article, viz.: a trunk, do not co-operate in the use of such article. The court below was evidently inclined to this opinion, but permitted the plaintiff to enter a disclaimer of all the claims but the one in suit. Whether these different devices were properly embodied in the same patent or not, we think this was a proper case for a disclaimer under section 4917. While the language of this section provides for disclaimers "whenever, through inadvertence, accident or mistake, and without any fraudulent or deceptive intention, a patentee has claimed more than that of which he was the original or first inventor or discoverer," it allows the patentee to "make disclaimer of such parts of the thing patented as he shall not choose to claim or hold by virtue of the patent or assignment, stating therein the extent of his interest in such patent." We think this section broad enough to cover disclaimers made to avoid the effect of having included in the patent more devices than could properly be made the subject of a single patent. The power to disclaim is a beneficial one, and ought not to be denied except where it is resorted to for a fraudulent and deceptive purpose. In Tuck v. Bramhill, 6 Blatchford, 95, a disclaimer was allowed by

[ 145 U.S. Page 41]

     Mr. Justice Blatchford where two or more inventions were covered by a single claim. In Hailes v. Albany Stove Co., 123 U.S. 582, 587, it was said by Mr. Justice Bradley to be "usually and properly employed for the surrender of a separate claim in a patent, or some other distinct and separable matter, which can be exscinded without mutilating or changing what is left standing."

The only difficulty connected with the question of the disclaimer in this case arises from the final sentence of section 4917, that "no such disclaimer shall affect any action pending at the time of its being filed, except so far as may relate to the question of unreasonable neglect or delay in filing it." There is an unfortunate choice of language here which has rendered this sentence very ambiguous and difficult of construction. It was held by Mr. Justice Story in Reed v. Cutter, 1 Story, 590, 600, that, if the disclaimer were filed during the pendency of the suit, the plaintiff would not be entitled to the benefit thereof in that suit -- a ruling which had also been made in Wyeth v. Stone, 1 Story, 273, 294. It was held in Tuck v. Bramhill, 6 Blatchford, 95, that the provision meant that a suit pending when a disclaimer is filed is not to be affected by such filing so as to prevent the plaintiff from recovering in it, unless it appears that the plaintiff unreasonably neglected or delayed to file the disclaimer. And such was also the ruling of Mr. Justice Nelson in Guyon v. Serrell, 1 Blatchford, 244; and in Hall v. Wiles, 2 Blatchford, 194, 198. We think that section 4917 ought to be read in connection with section 4922, providing that the patentee may maintain a suit at law or in equity for the infringement of any part of the thing patented, notwithstanding the specifications may embrace more than that of which the patentee was the first inventor or discoverer; but in every such ...

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