Film History: The Motion Picture Patent Wars

Members of the Motion Picture Patents Company

               The Motion Picture Patents Company was the result of the patent wars that started when W.K.L. Dickson started his own company, the Biograph. Prior to that moment Edison and his company had nothing to worry about, for they were successful at dominating the motion picture field. When the Lumiere brothers came to the U.S. with their cinematograph, Edison found a way to lure them away. However, Dickson knowing the ways of Edison having previously worked for him creating the kinetograph, a 35mm camera, knew how to challenge the entrepreneur. He basically created an entirely different camera that shot 70mm films known as the mutoscope to avoid getting sued.

               With the demand exceeding the supply in the film industry, another competition emerged, J. Stauart Blackon and his vitagraph and by 1898 there were three major studios, Edison, Biograph and Vitagraph. Edison reacted to these challenges by filing over twenty lawsuits in a matter of years. While sometimes he would succeed, he would more often fail to bring an end to these new companies. Edison would file lawsuits especially on Biograph since Dickson was his former employer and a great threat to his company. Still with Biograph having a patent to its camera the matter seemed rather impossible.

1893- Edison Introduces the Dickson Kinetoscope

                Eventually smaller companies started to emerge including Selig, Essany, Lubin, Kleine, Kalem, Melie’s Star, and Pathe. Edison’s need to dominate did not end yet and his only hope was to introduce the MPPC and get top billing. After a few months of disagreements between Edison and Dickson, the MPPC was finally established in 1908 with Biograph earning the second most profits followed by the rest.

                With Edison and Dickson pleased with the result of a legal monopoly, they no longer had to fear competition. It was officially illegal to distribute or show any films without permission of the MPPC. They had the rights to every film and camera in the market and there for a while there was no one to stop them. Unfortunate for them, many parties were displeased with the total control over costs and prices, and with more demand than “the Trust” could provide, a second generation calling themselves Independents appeared. The Motion Picture Patents Company called them outlaws for they did not submit themselves to the monopoly. 

Homer Edison aka Thomas Simpson

               The independents movement stayed away from New York and Edison’s monopoly to avoid lawsuits. In 1909, the Independent Motion Picture Company formed and used illegal equipment to strengthen their underground market. When stars started signing contracts to IMP, the Motion Picture Patents Company started losing control of the business and reacted by creating the General Film Company to block the distribution of independents without a license. It was then that the MPPC had effectively regained its monopoly. The monopoly would not last and the MPPC would soon meet its end.

            William Fox, the owner of a film rental company didn’t want to sell his company to Edison who would constantly offer him deals, and Edison found himself facing another challenge. Soon the Fox Film Corporation started making movies and even after losing his license, he still defied the MPPC with a lawsuit that would lead to the decline of the Motion Picture Patents Company. The government was already not pleased with all the monopolies forming around the country and so Fox used this in his favor and it helped him win them over in a lawsuit that would bring an end to the patents trust formed by Edison and Dickson.    

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17 responses to this post.

  1. Very informative Wael! Keep up the good work!


  2. Good job, sir. So that’s how “Hollywood” got started, eh?


  3. I expected I would, and I have.


  4. Informative as always, Wael. I just hope that digital never completely replaces celluloid. Maybe when they start projecting films in Blu-Ray, they will be able to come close enough to celluloid so that there is not much of a difference, but digital just doesn’t look as good as 35 mm.


    • I agree, bluray may look great and as close to 35mm as possible, but I don’t think it’ll ever capture let’s say 70mm the same way as celluloid. Digital is great for home entertainment but I wish every theater would use celluloid projectors instead of digital ones.


  5. Posted by Pedro Duque on March 8, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    My name is Pedro Duque. I introduce myself as a titular professor of the Graphic Design program at the Jorge tadeo University in Bogotá, Colombia, I recently finished a research on the history of printed images, which will be published as a book entitled Los heraldos : miradas locales de la gráfica globalizada (The heralds: local gazes on globalized graphics).

    This book is an academic edition.

    For this reason, I kindly ask you the permission to use an imagen Members of the Motion Picture Patents Company.

    I thank you in advance for your attention and colaboration to this petition.

    I will wait for a soon answer.




  6. […] How can anyone who has been in Hollywood as long as he has be unaware of the Motion Picture Patents War? […]


  7. […] geniuses, beginning with Thomas Edison, who, along with his peers, fought constantly over who controlled the patents and for the technology they designed–reminiscent of the corporate jockeying and patent wars […]


  8. […] In 1908 a group of American companies involved in the nascent motion picture industry, including Thomas Edison’s Edison Manufacturing Company and film supplier Kodak, formed the Motion Picture Patents Company. […]


  9. […] “Film History: The Motion Picture Patent Wars.” The Cinephile Fix. May 22, 2010. Accessed April 21, 2017. […]


  10. […] So I started digging deeper into the issue. I won’t be able to cover the topic properly considering the word limit, however, I’ll try to at least briefly cover the issue. So, first, I’ll talk about the effect of patent and copyright on the early development of filmmaking industry in Hollywood. After inventing a working camera and the projector by Lumber in 1895, the patent holders for making and distributing movies including but not limited by Jenkins and Edison formed the Motion Pictures Patent Company, a cartel known as the Film Trust (Khairy, 2010). […]


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