CRAMP & SONS CO. V. CURTIS TURBINE CO., 246 U. S. 28 (1918)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Cramp & Sons Co. v. Curtis Turbine Co., 246 U.S. 28 (1918)

Cramp & Sons Ship & Engine Building Company v.

International Curtis Marine Turbine Company

No. 393

Argued January 29, 30, 1918

Decided March 4, 1918

246 U.S. 28




The Act of June 25, 1910, c. 423, 36 Stat. 851, providing, in part, that, when patented inventions are used by the United States without license from the owner or lawful right, the owner may recover reasonable compensation for such use in the Court of Claims, is not to be construed as automatically conferring a general license on the government to use such inventions and as thereby authorizing their use at the will of private parties in the manufacture of things to be furnished under contracts between them and the United States.

Page 246 U. S. 29

Where, therefore, a company entered into a contract with the United States to build certain vessels which was based on specifications, submitted or approved by the Navy Department, covering in detail the structure, engines, etc., but which contract expressly provided for protecting the government against any claims which might arise from the infringement by the contractor of the rights of any patentee, and, in constructing the vessels, installed therein certain patented engines without the consent of the patent owners, held that the Act of June 25, 1910, supra, did not operate to relieve the contractor from liability to account for the damages and profits arising from the infringement.

The purpose of the statute is to give further security to the rights of patentees by permitting suit and recovery of compensation in the Court of Claims in those cases where their inventions are availed of for the benefit of the United States by officials of the government, in dealing with subjects within the scope of their authority, but under circumstances not justifying the implication of contract with the patentees. Aside from exceptional cases where the authority of the United States to take under eminent domain may be said to be exerted in reliance upon this provision for compensation, the act contemplates the possibility of official error or mistake in the invasion of such rights; it does not contemplate the deliberate and wrongful appropriation of such constitutionally protected property by official authority, much less does it intend that mere contractors with the government may make such appropriations without compensation, in the work under their contracts, upon the assumption that the United States ultimately will be liable under the statute for the rights so elected to be taken.

Crozier v. Krupp, 224 U. S. 290, explained and distinguished.

238 F.5d 4 affirmed.

The case is stated in the opinion.

Page 246 U. S. 35

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The history of this suit, from its commencement up to the development of the controversy now before us, will be shown by an examination of the decided cases referred to in the margin. [Footnote 1] We shall therefore not recur to that which has gone before, but confine our statement to the things essential to an understanding of the phase of the issue which we must now decide.

Under proposals submitted by the Navy Department, the petitioner, the Cramp Company, in 1908 contracted to build two torpedo boat destroyers, Nos. 30 and 31, and in 1911 further contracted to build four such boats, Nos. 47, 48, 49 and 50. The specifications submitted by the department as to structure, engines, etc., were comprehensively detailed, and the contracts were based either upon the acceptance of such specifications or upon such changes suggested by the contractor as met the approval of the Navy Department. The contracts contained an express provision, which is in the margin, [Footnote 2] protecting the government

Page 246 U. S. 36

against any claims which might arise from the infringement by the contractor of the rights of any patentee, if any such rights there were.

The Turbine Companies filed their bill against the Cramp Company to recover damages and profits accruing from the infringement of certain patents on turbine engines which the Cramp Company had placed in the boats built under the contract of 1908. Ultimately this claim of infringement was upheld by the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. 211 F.1d 4. On the hearing which then ensued before a master as to damages and profits, the Turbine Companies urged their claim and tendered their proof concerning the same, covering the four destroyers, Nos. 47, 48, 49 and 50, built under the contract of 1911, upon the ground of an infringement like that which had been committed as to the boats built under the contract of 1908. Rubber Co. v. Goodyear, 9 Wall. 805. The inquiry was objected to on the ground of its irrelevancy because liability for infringement under the contract of 1911 was to be tested by a different rule from that which was applicable to the boats contracted for in 1908 in consequence of the applicability to the 1911 contracts of the Act of Congress of June 25, 1910, c. 423, 36 Stat. 851. Under that law, it was insisted:

"the United States, by act of eminent domain, acquired a license to use the invention of all existing patents, and therefore the transactions under the contracts for torpedo boat destroyers Nos. 47, 48, 49 and 50, being merely the building of devices for a licensee under the patent in suit, were licensed transactions, and consequently are not within the scope of this accounting."

The master overruled the objection, but thereafter, on request, certified the subject to

Page 246 U. S. 37

the district court, where his ruling was held to be wrong on its merits, and reversed. On a rehearing, the court sustained the view which it had previously taken of the subject by a reference to a decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. v. Simon, 227 F.9d 6; 231 F.1d 21; 232 F.1d 6. Application was then made to the circuit court of appeals by certiorari to review this ruling and by mandamus to compel the master to proceed with the hearing in accordance with the claims of the Turbine Companies. Finding that the ruling in the Marconi case was pending in this Court for review, the court of appeals postponed deciding the issue of statutory construction to await the decision of this Court, but directed the accounting to proceed as to both classes of contracts in such a manner as to enable the authoritative ruling on the statute, when made by this Court, to be applied without confusion or delay. 238 F.5d 4. The writ of certiorari on which the case is now before us was then allowed, and this and the Marconi case referred to by the court below were argued and submitted upon the same day.

The single question is, did the provisions of the Act of 1910 operate, without more, to confer upon the United States a license to use the patents of the Turbine Companies, and if so, was the Cramp Company, as a contractor, authorized to avail itself of the license by using the patent rights of the Turbine Companies without their consent? Avowedly, on the very face of the act, its purpose was not to weaken the rights of patentees, but to further secure them. This results not only from the title of the law (An act to provide additional protection for owners of patents of the United States, and for other purposes), but further from the report of the committee of the House of Representatives where the act originated which stated that such was the purpose intended to be accomplished

Page 246 U. S. 38

by the act. (House Report No. 1288, 61st Congress, 2d sess.). The conflict between the purpose thus intended and the construction now claimed for the act is evident unless it can be said that to confer by anticipation upon the United States by a law universally and automatically operating a license to use every patent right is a means of giving effect to a provision of a statute avowedly intended for the further securing and protecting of such patent rights.

But, passing deducing the meaning of the act from its title and the report of the committee by which it was drafted, it is apparent that the significance which the contention affixes to it is directly in conflict with the text (which is in the margin [Footnote 3]), since that text expressly declares that the object of the act is to secure compensation for patentees whose rights have been "used by the United States without license" -- the very antithesis of a right by license to use all patents which is the purpose attributed

Page 246 U. S. 39

to the act by the argument. And this is made clearer by considering that the statute itself, in directing the proceedings which must be resorted to in order to accomplish its avowed purpose, exacts the judicial ascertainment of conditions which would be wholly negligible and irrelevant upon the assumption that the statute intended to provide in favor of the United States the general license right which the argument attributes to it. This conclusion cannot be escaped when it is considered that, if the license which it is insisted the act in advance created obtained in favor of the United States, the inquiry into the question of infringement by the United States for which the statute provides would be wholly superfluous, and indeed inconsistent with the assumption of the existence of the supposed license.

But let us in addition pass these latter considerations and come not only to demonstrate the error of the construction asserted, but to make manifest the true meaning of the statute from a two-fold point of view -- that is, first, from an analysis of the context of the statute as elucidated by the indisputable principles which, at the time of the adoption of the act, governed the subjects with which it dealt, and second, from the consideration of the context and the effect upon it of the ruling in Crozier v. Krupp, 224 U. S. 290.

At the time of the enactment of the law of 1910, the following principles were so indisputably established as to need no review of the authorities sustaining them, although the leading cases as to all the propositions are referred to in the margin. [Footnote 4]

(a) That rights secured under the grant of letters patent

Page 246 U. S. 40

by the United States were property, and protected by the guarantees of the Constitution, and not subject, therefore, to be appropriated, even for public use without adequate compensation.

(b) That, although the United States was not subject to be sued, and therefore could not be impleaded because of an alleged wrongful taking of such rights by one of its officers, nevertheless a person attempting to take such property in disregard of the constitutional guarantees was subject, as a wrongdoer, to be controlled to the extent necessary to prevent the violation of the Constitution. But it was equally well settled as to patent rights, as was the case with all others, that the right to proceed against an individual, even although an officer, to prevent a violation of the Constitution did not include the right to disregard the Constitution by awarding relief which could not rightfully be granted without impleading the United States, or, what is equivalent thereto, without interfering with the property of the United States possessed or used for the purpose of its governmental functions.

(c) That, despite the want of authority to implead the United States, yet where an officer of the United States, within the scope of an official authority vested in him to deal with a particular subject, having knowledge of existing patent rights and of their validity, appropriated them for the benefit of the United States by the consent of the owner, express or implied, upon the conception that compensation would be thereafter provided, the owner of the patent right taken under such circumstances might, under the statute law of the United States permitting suits against the United States on contracts express or implied, recover by way of implied contract the compensation which might be rightly exacted because of such taking.

(d) That, where an officer of the United States, in dealing with a subject within the scope of his authority, infringed patent rights by a taking or use of property for

Page 246 U. S. 41

the benefit of the United States without the conditions stated justifying the implication of a contract, however serious might be the infringement or grave to the holder of the rights the consequences of such infringement, the only redress of the owner was against the officer, since no ground for implying a contract and securing compensation from the United States obtained.

Coming to consider the statute in the light of these principles, there would seem to be no room for controversy that the direct and simple provision

"that, whenever an invention described in and covered by a patent of the United States shall hereafter be used by the United States without license of the owner thereof or lawful right to use the same, such owner may recover reasonable compensation for such use by suit in the Court of Claims"

embraces and was intended alone to provide for the discrepancy resulting from the divergence between the right in one case to sue on an implied contract, and the nonexistence of a right to sue in another. And this meaning becomes irresistible when the concordance which it produces between the title and the report of the committee is considered, on the one hand, and the discord which would arise, on the other, from reading into the statute the theory of automatic and general license as to every patent which the argument presses. Observe that the right to recover by implied contract as existing prior to 1910, and the right to recover given by that act, both rest upon the possession and exertion of official authority, although, from the absence of definition in the statute, the precise scope of the official power possessed in order to bring the authority into play is not specified, but is left to be deduced from the application of general principles. Observe further that, resting thus upon the exercise of official power it was not assumed before the Act of 1910, or under that act, that the official authority would consciously and intentionally be exerted so as to violate the Constitution

Page 246 U. S. 42

by wrongfully appropriating private property. This follows from a two-fold point of view: first, because the basis of the right to sue on implied contract is the fact that official power, recognizing the patent right and the at least implied assent of the owner, had acted in reliance upon the fact that adequate compensation would follow the taking. And second, because, in conferring the right to prove infringement, the Act of 1910 obviously contemplates the possibility of the commission of official error or mistake on that subject, and afforded a remedy for its correction and resulting compensation. Thus it is true to say that, under both views, the theory of its universal and automatic appropriation by the United States of a license to use all patent rights is unsupported, since both views assume that official authority would not be willfully exerted so as to violate the Constitution, and this although it be that the Act of 1910 embraces the exceptional case where, because of some essential governmental exigency or public necessity, the authority of the United States is exerted to take patent rights under eminent domain in reliance upon the provision to recover the adequate compensation which the Act of 1910 affords. And this fundamental characteristic at once exposes the want of foundation for the contention that, because the statute made provision for giving effect to acts of official power in taking patent rights under the conditions stated and even when necessary of curing defects in the exertion of such power, therefore it is to be assumed that the statute conferred upon all who contracted with the United States for the performance of work a right to disregard and take without compensation the property of patentees. This must be, since the making of a contract with the United States to perform duties in favor of the United States does not convert the contractor into an official of the United States qualified to represent it and to entail obligations on it which, under the terms of the statute, can alone rest

Page 246 U. S. 43

upon official action and the discharge of official duty. The making of a contract with the United States and the resulting obligation to perform duties in favor of the United States by necessary implication impose the responsibility of performance in accordance with the law of the land -- that is, without disregarding the rights or appropriating the property of others. A contractor with the United States therefore is, in the very nature of things, bound to discharge the obligation of his contract without violating the rights of others, and, merely because he contracts with the United States, is not vested with the power to take the property of others upon the assumption that, as a result of the contract with the United States, he enjoys the right to exercise public and governmental powers possessed by the United States.

Nor is there any foundation for the assumption that the ruling in Crozier v. Krupp, 224 U. S. 290, is in conflict with these self-evident propositions, and by necessary implication sanctions the theory of universal license in favor of the United States as to all patent rights and the asserted resulting authority in contractors with the United States for the purpose of the execution of their contracts to disregard and appropriate all such rights.

Stated as briefly as we possibly can, the case was this: in the arsenals of the United States, guns and gun carriages were constructed containing appliances which it was asserted infringed patent rights of the Krupp Company. A bill was filed against Crozier, who was Chief of Ordinance of the United States, to enjoin the alleged violation of the asserted patent rights. Crozier demurred to the amended bill on the ground that the court had no jurisdiction because the suit was one against the United States. The trial court dismissed the bill. The Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia reversed because, although it fully conceded there was no jurisdiction over the United States and no power to interfere with its public

Page 246 U. S. 44

property or duties, it yet considered that there was jurisdiction to restrain the individual, although an officer, from continuing to take property without compensation in violation of the Constitution. A certiorari was granted. It was stipulated in the cause that the structures complained of had been made in all the arsenals of the United States by Crozier, the Chief of Ordinance, and by the United States, and that the United States had asserted the right, and proposed to continue, to make the guns and gun carriages in the future for its governmental purposes, and denied the violation of any patent right. It was also stipulated that the Chief of Ordinance had made no profits, and that all claims were waived except the claim of right to a permanent injunction at the termination of the suit to prevent the use of the appliances in the future. And that was the solitary issue which here arose for decision.

It was held that, in view of the admission as to the nature and character of the acts done by the United States, and further in view of the power of the United States to take under eminent domain the patent rights asserted, the provisions of the statute affording a right of action and compensation were adequate to justify the exercise of such power. In accordance with this ruling, it was decided that there was no right to an injunction against the Chief of Ordinance as an individual, and the parties, if their rights had been infringed, were relegated to the compensation provided under the Act of 1910. In reaching this conclusion, the statute was critically considered, principally for the purpose of determining whether the right to recover compensation which the act afforded was adequate to fulfill the requirements of compensation for rights taken as protected by the Constitution. It is true, in the analysis which was made of the statute for this purpose, it was said that the consummated result of the Act of 1910 in any particular case was to confer upon the United States a license to use the patent right (p. 224 U. S. 305).

Page 246 U. S. 45

But the use of the word "license" affords no room for holding that it was decided that the statute provided for the appropriation, by anticipation and automatically, of a license to the United States to use the rights of all patentees as to every patent. And clearer yet is it that the use of the word "license" affords no ground for the proposition that the statute invested every person contracting with the United States for the furnishing of material or supplies or for doing works of construction with public powers, and transferred to them the assumed license to violate patent rights to the end that they might be relieved of the obligations of their contracts, and entail upon the United States unenumerated and undetermined responsibility upon the assumption that the United States would be ultimately liable for the patent rights which the contractors might elect to take. Through abundance of precaution, however, we say that, if any support for such contentions be susceptible of being deduced from the use of the word "license" in the passage referred to, then the word must be, and it is, limited, as pointed out by the context of the opinion and by what we have said in this case, to the nature and character of use which was contemplated by the statute and which is consonant with the execution of its limited though beneficent purpose and not destructive of the same.

Under the view which we have stated, it follows that the court below did not err in ordering the accounting under the 1911 contracts to proceed so that the statute, when correctly construed, might be applied. To the end, therefore, that effect may be given to such accounting as ordered by the court below, our decree will be

The order of the circuit court of appeals to the extent that it directed the accounting to be made on the basis therein stated is affirmed and the decree of the district court is reversed and the case is remanded to the district court for further proceedings in conformity with this opinion.

[Footnote 1]

International Curtis Marine Turbine Co. v. Wm. Cramp & Sons Co., 176 F.9d 5; In re Grove, 180 F. 62; Curtis Turbine Co. v. Wm. Cramp & Sons Co., 202 F.9d 2; Wm. Cramp & Sons Co. v. Curtis Turbine Co., 228 U. S. 645; Curtis Turbine Co. v. Wm Cramp & Sons Co., 211 F.1d 4; Wm. Cramp & Sons Co. v. Curtis Turbine Co., 234 U.S. 755.

[Footnote 2]

"Patents. The party of the first part, in consideration of the premises, hereby covenants and agrees to hold and save the United States harmless from and against all and every demand or demands of any nature or kind for or on account of the adoption of any plan, model design, or suggestion, or for or on account of the use of any patented invention, article, or appliance that has been or may be adopted or used in or about the construction of said vessel, or any part thereof, under this contract, and to protect and discharge the government from all liability on account thereof, or on account of the use thereof, by proper releases from patentees, and by bond if required, or otherwise, and to the satisfaction of the Secretary of the Navy."

[Footnote 3]

"An act to provide additional protection for owners of patents of the United States, and for other purposes."

"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that, whenever an invention described in and covered by a patent of the United States shall hereafter be used by the United States without license of the owner thereof or lawful right to use the same, such owner may recover reasonable compensation for such use by suit in the Court of Claims: Provided, however, that said Court of Claims shall not entertain a suit or reward (sic) compensation under the provisions of this act where the claim for compensation is based on the use by the United States of any article heretofore owned, leased, used by, or in the possession of the United States: Provided further, that, in any such suit, the United States may avail itself of any and all defenses, general or special, which might be pleaded by a defendant in an action for infringement, as set forth in title sixty of the Revised Statutes, or otherwise: And provided further, that the benefits of this Act shall not inure to any patentee who, when he makes such claim, is in the employment or service of the government of the United States, or the assignee of any such patentee; nor shall this Act apply to any device discovered or invented by such employee during the time of his employment or service."

[Footnote 4]

United States v. Palmer, 128 U. S. 262; Schillinger v. United States, 155 U. S. 163; United States v. Berdan Firearms Mfg. Co., 156 U. S. 552; Belknap v. Schild, 161 U. S. 10; Russell v. United States, 182 U. S. 516; International Postal Supply Co. v. Bruce, 194 U. S. 601; Harley v. United States, 198 U. S. 229.

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