Talk:Aro Mfg. Co. v. Convertible Top Replacement Co., 365 U.S. 336 (1961)

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An action was brought for infringement of a combination patent on a convertible folding top for automobiles. The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts rendered a judgment for the plaintiff, and the defendants appealed. The Court of Appeals, 270 F.2d 200, affirmed the judgment, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari. The Supreme Court, Mr. Justice Whittaker, held that the maintenance of the use of the whole of a patented combination through the replacement of a spent, unpatented element does not constitute infringing reconstruction, and that the replacement of the fabric of patented convertible folding top was permissible repair and not infringing reconstruction, and that automobile owner did not infringe and the manufacturer of the fabric did not contributorily infringe the patent.

Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine question whether owner of combination patent, comprised entirely of unpatented elements, had patent, monopoly on manufacture, sale, or use of the several unpatented components of patented combination. Validity of the patent is not challenged in this Court. The principal, and we think the determinative, question presented here is whether the owner of a combination *339 patent, comprised entirely of unpatented elements, has a patent monopoly on the manufacture, sale or use of the several unpatented components of the patented combination. More specifically, and limited to the particular case here, does the car owner infringe**601 (and the supplier contributorily infringe) the combination patent when he replaces the spent fabric without the patentee's consent? No element, not itself separately patented, that constitutes one of the elements of a combination patent is entitled to patent monopoly, however essential it may be to the patented combination and no matter how costly or difficult replacement may be. While there is language in some lower court opinions indicating that ‘repair’ or ‘reconstruction’ depends on a number of factors, it is significant that each of the three cases of this Court, cited for that proposition, holds that a license to use a patented combination includes the right ‘to preserve its fitness for use so far as it may be affected by wear or breakage.’ *346 Leeds & Catlin Co. v. Victor Talking Machine Co., 213 U.S. 325, 336, 29 S.Ct. 503, 507, 53 L.Ed. 816; Heyer v. Duplicator Mfg. Co., supra, 263 U.S. at page 102, 44 S.Ct. at page 32; and Wilson v. Simpson, supra, 9 How. at page 123, 13 L.Ed. 66. We hold that maintenance of the ‘use of the whole’ of the patented combination through replacement of a spent, unpatented element does not constitute reconstruction.

Mr. Justice BLACK, concurring.

  • 357 In my judgment it would create mischievous results for a majority of this Court to create or approve ambiguous evidentiary standards which could only obfuscate the simple fact of whether a person is ‘making’ a patented article composed of old unpatentable elements. For example, there should be no attempt to decide whether there is a making by comparing the time that the different elements of such a patent normally will exist if let alone. The owner is under no obligation to let them alone. Every owner has the right to repair and patch each part of the property he bought and paid for in order to make it last as long as he can. Everyone knows that this patented top is likely to last as long as the car itself if it is repaired from time to time. An accident might wholly destroy the entire top and then it might have to be replaced by a new one, which if done without the patentee's consent would of course be an infringement. I cannot suppose, however, that if the bows upon which the fabric rests at the top, or the metal frames upon which it stands, or the metal wiper which helps to level off the curtain folds, or the snaps that may have to be used, should happen to become worn out or destroyed, that anyone could reasonably come to the conclusion that a replacement of one of these worn-out parts would be a complete rebuilding of the old top or the ‘making’ of a new one and therefore an infringement of the patent. Such a contention would seem little short of fantastic to me, and the same is true as to replacement of the fabric.

This case is of great importance in our competitive economy. The record shows that petitioner is but one of many small business enterprises filling a useful place in manufacturing the comparatively smaller parts of larger products like automobiles. It is quite right and in keeping with our patent system that small business enterprises should no more than **611 large enterprises be allowed to *358 infringe the patents of others. But businessmen are certainly entitled to know when they are committing an infringement. It is for that reason that the patent statutes require applicants to define with particularity and claim without ambiguity the subject matter which is regarded to be an invention.

The established policy in this Nation for more than a century has been that when an article described in a patent is sold and ‘passes to the hands of the purchaser, it is no longer within the limits of the monopoly. It passes outside of it, and is no longer under the protection of the act of congress.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN, concurring in the result.

For more than a hundred years it has been the law that the owner of a device covered by a combination patent can, without infringing, keep the device in good working order by replacing, either himself or through any source he wishes, unpatented parts, but that he may not, without rendering himself liable for infringement, reconstruct the device itself, whether because of its deterioration or for any other reason, and even though all of the component parts of the device are themselves unpatented.