[Editor’s Note: Ben Alpers, outstanding cultural historian, friend of EotAW, world traveler, and author of this book, checks in from Germany to drop some knowledge. Also, although the links in the post are Ben’s, I selected the video above. Because who can resist boxing cats? Regardless, thanks Ben.]

On this day in 1902, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Southern District of New York ruled against Thomas Alva Edison in his attempt to create an effective motion-picture monopoly on the basis of patent law.

As has already been noted on this blog, there was no single inventor of motion pictures. Indeed, a variety of rival inventors in the U.S. and Europe had almost simultaneously come up with the technologies to photograph and project motion pictures during the first half of the 1890s.

Edison had in fact played an important role in developing early motion picture technology. His business strategy, following the flood of new cinematic technologies in the middle of the 1890s, involved attempting to assemble a series of patents that would effectively make it impossible to produce motion pictures without purchasing a license from his company. A number of independent film companies had entered the business and challenged Edison’s patent claims. The biggest of these, at least in the United States, was American Mutoscope & Biograph, which had been a rival to Edison since the very beginning of motion pictures in 1895.

Having won a ruling upholding his motion-picture camera patent in a lower court, the March 10, 1902 circuit court ruling was a major blow against Edison. The patent in question depended on the sprockets that advanced the film through the camera via holes on either side of the film strip. AM&B, however, used a camera that advanced the film by means of pressure rollers. In ruling in favor of AM&B, the court seemed, for the moment, to have broken the back of the Edison monopoly.

But Edison v. American Mutoscope & Biograph was but one early battle in a protracted intellectual property war. While other independents expanded production in the hopes that Edison’s intellectual property claims were not all that they seemed to be, Edison shored up his patents and continued taking film companies to court. Over the course of the next half-decade it became clear that Edison would be able to enforce his patents against the other independents, who all used sprocket-based cameras, but that AM&B would be able to operate independently. But neither Edison nor AM&B was entirely satisfied with this state of affairs. In 1907, Edison and AM&B sued each other over an entirely different set of patents.

Finally, Edison and AM&B decided it would be in both their interests to settle for joint, oligopolistic control of the industry. In 1908, the two companies formed the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), which attempted to control all motion picture production, distribution, and exhibition through licensing fees. Although soon backed by film giant Kodak, the MPPC eventually fell victim to successful court challenges from a new series of independents and to antitrust action by the federal government, which finally put the MPPC entirely out of business in 1917. Nor is that the end of the story. Following the fall of the MPPC, the plucky, Southern California-based independents that had challenged it almost immediately set up a new oligopoly of their own, one that would last until the U.S. v. Paramount case broke up the Hollywood studio system in 1948.

But the moral of this story is not simply what goes around comes around, even when the old bosses are defeated they’re just replaced by new bosses, “ain’t no nostalgia to this shit here, there’s just the street and the game,” as appropriate as that message might be today.

In fact, the almost two-decade long motion picture patent wars had a decisive impact on the history of motion pictures. The world might not be flocking to Hollywood feature films had these intellectual property battles played out differently. Independent film companies first came to Hollywood in part to get away from the northeastern-based MPPC and the courts that had proven amenable to that oligopoly’s intellectual property claims. And the defeat of the MPPC in the middle years of the 1910s helped cement the rise of feature-length films, which the MPPC companies, whose business model relied on single-reel shorts, had been resisting.

One wonders what historians in a century will note as the long-term consequences of our current entertainment-industry intellectual property war.

(Many of the details above comes from Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s Film History: An Introduction, an excellent textbook that I happen to have at hand here in Leipzig. However, those interested in a more detailed history of these patent wars should check out Charles Musser’s The Emergence of Cinema: the American Screen to 1907 and Eileen Bowser’s The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915.)