Graham v. John Deere (JWB)

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The Case

  • Graham (petitioner) v. John Deere (respondent) – Deere allegedly infringed on Graham’s patent
  • Presents a conflict over the validity of a single patent on a "Clamp for vibrating Shank Plows." The invention, a combination of old mechanical elements, involves a device designed to absorb shock from plow shanks as they plow through rocky soil and thus to prevent damage to the plow.
  • In 1955, the Fifth Circuit had held the patent valid under its rule that when a combination produces an "old result in a cheaper and otherwise more advantageous way," it is patentable
  • Court of Appeals (1966) – Eighth Circuit held that since there was no new result in the combination the patent was invalid
  • Act of 1952 – while the clear language of 103 places emphasis on an inquiry into obviousness, the general level of innovation necessary to sustain patentability remains the same
  • U.S.S.C. affirmed Court of Appeals – patent invalid
  • Graham had a patent and improved upon his design to obtain a second patent. All he changed was that he inverted the shank and the hinge plate, which was ruled to be obvious to a person having ordinary skill in the prior art

Related Cases

  • No. 37, Calmar, Inc. (respondent) v. Cook Chemical Co. (petitioner), and No. 43, Colgate-Palmolive Co. v. Cook Chemical Co.
  • patent relating to a plastic finger sprayer with a "hold-down" cap used as a built-in dispenser for containers with liquids, principally insecticides
  • did not meet the ‘nonobvious’ test and were declared invalid by District Court and Court of Appeals
  • Supreme Court reversed
  • Calmar insisted that Cook’s design did not differ enough from prior art
  • District Court and Court of Appeals found it to be valid due to its novelty, the attempts and failings of many in previous years to create a successful design, and its immediate commercial success
  • Supreme Court: “The Scoggin invention (for Cook), as limited by the Patent Office and accepted by Scoggin, rests upon exceedingly small and quite nontechnical mechanical differences in a device which was old in the art. At the latest, those differences were rendered apparent in 1953 by the appearance of the Livingstone patent, and unsuccessful attempts to reach a solution to the problems confronting Scoggin made before that time became wholly irrelevant.”


  • Constitution discusses Congressional power to grant patents to promote progress in the useful arts
    • Jefferson was weary to grant monopolies (after the British tea monopoly
    • eventually saw it as “a reward, an inducement, to bring forth new knowledge”
    • Jefferson did not believe in granting patents for small details, obvious improvements, or frivolous devices
  • Congress established the two statutory requirements of novelty and utility in the Patent Act of 1793
  • This Court in Hotchkiss v. Greenwood (1851), additionally conditioned the issuance of a patent upon the evidence of more ingenuity and skill than that possessed by an ordinary mechanic acquainted with the business
  • In 103 of the 1952 Patent Act Congress added the statutory nonobvious subject matter requirement, originally expounded in Hotchkiss, which merely codified judicial precedents requiring a comparison of the subject matter sought to be patented and the prior art, tying patentable inventions to advances in the art. Although 103 places emphasis upon inquiries into obviousness, rather than into "invention," the general level of innovation necessary to sustain patentability remains unchanged under the 1952 Act
  • This section permits a more practical test of patentability. The determination of "nonobviousness" is made after establishing the scope and content of prior art, the differences between the prior art and the claims at issue, and the level of ordinary skill in the pertinent art
  • With respect to each patent involved here the differences between the claims in issue and the pertinent prior art would have been obvious to a person reasonably skilled in that art