Tennant Case 3: A. & P. Tea Co. v. Supermarket Corp. (1950)

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This case concerns the invention of a rack which was designed to speed the process by which a customer checks out in a supermarket. Each element of this device was known in "prior art," or information which may be pertinent to patent cases. A district court had ruled that though this was true, the combination was of such novelty and utility that its combination constituted a patent, mostly because of one feature: a bottomless, self-unloading tray counter extension which deposited the items to be purchased in front of the cashier. An appellate court later held these claims to be correct.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court made several decisions against these rulings. First, the Supreme Court stated that the lower courts had overstepped the bounds of the patent by focusing so much on the usefulness of the counter extension; the extension itself had not been a focus of the patent, nor was it mentioned in any explicit way in the patent documents. Secondly, even had the feature been adequately described, the extension did not really qualify as an invention; the length of the counter has long been merely a matter of preference on the part of the market. Next, had the extension constituted an invention, then the patent awarded grossly overclaimed the entire structure as an invention, unless the entire assembly did make a new and useful combination. Thus, the decision is this: does a new combination of old elements really qualify as a new invention?[1]

Although the United States had awarded patents to new combinations of old parts before, it had failed to really define what criteria should be assigned to such combinations in order to ascertain their patentability. The Court proposes the following test: combinations of old things may only be patentable when the whole is in some way greater than the sum of its parts. In the case of the counter extension and accompanying features, the Court ruled that neither lower court had ascertained a new function had been derived as a result of their combination. Because the patent did not contribute any new knowledge, it was invalid. The Court emphasized that Congress does not have, in its power, the ability to grant patents as freely as it wishes. The power to grant patents is qualified by restricting the award of patents only to those inventions which "promotes the progress of science and the useful arts."[2] The Court cited a litany of cases in which patents were granted to the individual parts of the patent in question, and believed that this was only an indication of just how far the practice of granting patents had gone astray.


  1. This is a decision which directly addresses some of the contentions described in Hotchkiss v. Greenwood. [1]
  2. A. &. P. Tea Co. v. Supermarket Corp. [2]