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Telephone Cases (126 U.S. 1, 1888 Mar 19)

Decision Parameters

Decisions That Cite It

    O'Reilly v. Morse [56 U.S. 15, 1853]

    Decisions It Cites

      Cochrane v. Deener [94 U.S. 780, 1877]
      Tilghman v. Proctor [102 U.S. 707, 1880]
      Gottschalk v. Benson [409 U.S. 63, 1972]

    Rules & Quotes

    {1} In this art — or, what is the same thing under the patent law, this process, this way of transmitting speech — electricity, one of the forces of nature, is employed; but electricity, left to itself, will not do what is wanted. The art consists in so controlling the force as to make it accomplish the purpose.

    {2} In doing this, both discovery and invention, in the popular sense of those terms, were involved; discovery in finding the art, and invention in devising the means of making it useful. For such discoveries and such inventions the law has given the discoverer and inventor the right to a patent — as discoverer, for the useful art, process, method of doing a thing he has found; and as inventor, for the means he has devised to make his discovery one of actual value. Other inventors may compete with him for the ways of giving effect to the discovery, but the new art he has found will belong to him and those claiming under him during the life of his patent. If another discovers a different art or method of doing the same thing, reduces it to practical use, and gets a patent for his discovery, the new discovery will be the property of the new discoverer, and thereafter the two will be permitted to operate each in his own way without interference by the other. The only question between them will be whether the second discovery is in fact different from the first.

    {3} Thus, an art — a process — which is useful, is as much the subject of a patent, as a machine, manufacture, or composition of matter. Of this there can be no doubt, and it is abundantly supported by authority. Corning v. Burden, 15 How. 252, 267; Cochrane v. Deener, 94 U.S. 780, 787, 788; Tilghman v. Proctor, 102 U.S. 707, 722, 724, 725; Fermentation Co. v. Maus, 122 U.S. 413, 427, 428.

    {4} It may be that electricity cannot be used at all for the transmission of speech except in the way Bell has discovered, and that therefore, practically, his patent gives him its exclusive use for that purpose, but that does not make his claim one for the use of electricity distinct from the particular process with which it is connected in his patent. It will, if true, show more clearly the great importance of his discovery, but it will not invalidate his patent.

    {5} The law does not require that a discoverer or inventor, in order to get a patent for a process, must have succeeded in bringing his art to the highest degree of perfection. It is enough if he describes his method with sufficient clearness and precision to enable those skilled in the matter to understand what the process is, and if he points out some practicable way of putting it into operation.

    {6} But it is needless to quote further from the evidence on this branch of the case. It is not contended that Reis had ever succeeded in actually transmitting speech, but only that his instrument was capable of it if he had known how. He did not know how, and all his experiments in that direction were failures. With the help of Bell's later discoveries in 1875 we now know why he failed. ... It was left for Bell to discover that the failure was due not to workmanship but to the principle which was adopted as the basis of what had to be done. ... Such was [Bell's] discovery, and it was new. Reis never thought of it, and he failed to transmit speech telegraphically. Bell did, and he succeeded. Under such circumstances it is impossible to hold that what Reis did was an anticipation of the discovery of Bell. To follow Reis is to fail, but to follow Bell is to succeed. The difference between the two is just the difference between failure and success. If Reis had kept on he might have found out the way to succeed, but he stopped and failed. Bell took up his work and carried it on to a successful result.

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