Guide to Motion Picture Catalogs:
Continued Legal Battles
Edison's control of the American industry reached its zenith on 15 July 1901, when Judge Hoyt Henry Wheeler ruled against the Biograph Company and in favor of Edison's patent on the motion picture camera. Biograph appealed the decision and continued to produce news films for its exhibition service. The decision directly affected other producers. Sigmund Lubin followed the advice of his lawyers and left the country. The Selig Polyscope Company continued to operate its exhibition service and to film a few local actuality subjects. Edison did not sue this company, perhaps because its activities were considered too insignificant. As a result of his court victory, Edison had a virtual monopoly in film production within the United States, but its duration was brief.
Biograph's appeal of Judge Wheeler's decision proved successful in March 1902. As a result, Edison underwent the costly, time-consuming process of rewriting and retesting his patent. After its victory, Biograph offered two types of exhibition services -- one with its large-format film and the other with Edison's standard 35mm gauge. It also pursued a dual business policy, retaining the newest and most popular films for its own exhibitions while selling older, less important films to other showmen. In 1902 it published a catalog listing many of the films that the company had made during the previous six years as well as the subjects that were made by its sister companies in Europe. Soon the company issued an April 1903 supplement and other promotional bulletins.
Biograph's court victory freed 35mm exhibitors and producers from Edison's legal restrictions. Lubin quickly reopened his business and soon was selling original subjects as well as dupes of other companies' productions. Selig not only sold its films more openly but also placed its polyscope projector on the market. Selig catalogs from the immediate post-March 1903 period suggest that this company was becoming a significant factor in the American motion picture industry. While Vitagraph resumed production of local news events, it concentrated on expanding its exhibition service. The Edison Company responded to this renewed competition in the spring of 1902 by making a series of story films, including JACK AND THE BEANSTALK and LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN. No other American motion picture company then had the resources and ambition to make films on this scale.
Edison's production activities were temporarily disrupted when Lubin began to dupe the company's principal subjects, thereby challenging its method of copyrighting films. Edison sought legal protection during 1902-03 but lost in the courts. Unable to protect his original films, he stopped all film production for several months early in 1903. Meanwhile, Lubin continued to produce his own films and to copy the work of rivals, a strategy evident in his comprehensive catalog of January 1903. Industry-wide turmoil was avoided when the U.S. Court of Appeals recognized Edison's method of copyrighting films in April 1903. Soon Porter resumed production of Edison's story films with UNCLE TOM'S CABIN and THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, but rival American companies were in hot commercial pursuit.
American producers faced a high degree of legal uncertainty throughout this period. Thomas Armat further exacerbated the situation by suing Biograph and Edison for infringing on his projection patents. A 1901 catalog, published by the Armat Motion-Picture Company, presented Armat's position. Although he won in a lower court, he failed to test further the validity of his patent, correctly suspecting that his claims might not be upheld. Consequently, his claims remained in legal limbo throughout much of this period.
The legal battles that eliminated many American motion picture companies and adversely affected the survivors did not occur in Europe, where numerous producers rose to prominence: Georges Méliès, Pathé Frères, and Leon Gaumont in France; and James Williamson, G. A. Smith, and Cecil Hepworth in England. Faced with legal uncertainty, American producers preferred to dupe the popular films of European filmmakers rather than invest extensively in their own productions. Lubin, Selig, and Edison catalogs from 1903-04 listed many dupes of English and French productions and gave particular prominence to Méliès films such as BLUEBEARD and A TRIP TO THE MOON. In June 1903 Gaston Méliès, the filmmaker's brother, opened a New York office, from which he sold prints to exhibitors. He copyrighted their new "Star" films and thus prevented the duping of these productions. Gaston Méliès also published a catalog of his brother's films and provided supplements for later releases. A few of their bulletins featured subjects by other European producers. The Paris-based Pathé Frères, facing similar problems in the American market, dispatched an agent to sell "authorized versions" of its films. At first he circulated catalogs published by Pathé's British subsidiary, the Cinematograph & Phonograph Company. Even before opening its New York office in August 1904, Pathé printed catalogs specifically for the American market. Unlike Méliès, however, Pathé did not copyright its films. Although duping Pathé films became less lucrative, it remained legal, and several American producers, including Edison and Lubin, continued to copy these French films for the next few years.
34. See H-002 and H-128 as well as Kemp R. Niver, ed., Biograph
Bulletins 1896-1908 (Los Angeles: Locare Research Group, 1971).
35. These Selig catalogs (see 1-005, 1-010, 1-023, 1-032) were acquired by Lyman H. Howe, a traveling exhibitor based in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The widow of Robert Gillman, the last chief executive of the Lyman H. Howe Film Company, donated these and other papers to PWBH.
36. Extensive descriptions of these films appear in catalogs: see G-344 and G-290; also see Andre Gaudreault, "Detours in Film Narrative: The Development of Cross-Cutting," Cinema Journal 19, no. 1 (Fall 1979): 39-59.
37. One of the earliest surviving Lubin catalogs (see J-021) was an exhibit in this case, Thomas A. Edison v. Sigmund Lubin, U.S. Circuit Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Apr. 1902), Equity No. 36, PPFAR.
38. Many of the Edison catalogs from this period were given to NR-GE by Eastman Kodak, which acquired them and a few Edison films for demonstration purposes during 1903. The January 1903 Edison supplement is at NNMOMA in the Merritt Crawford collection. Crawford's unrealized goal was to write a history of American cinema more accurate than Ramsaye's A Million and One Nights.
39. This document (see Q-002) survives in a small collection donated to CLCM by Thomas Armat. Other Armat materials were donated to NR-GE.
40. Eileen Bowser reports that the Méliès catalogs at NNMOMA were gathered by Iris Barry for the museum's first film programs in 1939. Paul Hammond, Marvellous Méliès (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974), is particularly good on Méliès's American activities. An excellent bibliography is in John Frazer, Artificially Arranged Scenes: The Films of Georges Méliès (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980).
41. For information on Pathé see Charles Pathé, De Pathé Frères a Pathé Cinema (Monaco: hors commerce, 1940; reprinted in abridged form, Paris: Premiere Plan, 1970). The Pathé catalogs at NjWOEas well as those by Méliès, Lubin, Biograph, and Nicholas Powerwere gathered by Joseph McCoy, Edison's industrial spy, who acquired them for court cases involving patent infringement.