John A. Marzall was born on March 8, 1896, in Chicago and practiced law there after living in New York. President Harry Truman appointed him commissioner of patents, and he took the oath of office on December 2, 1949, the day after Commissioner Kingsland resigned.
A highlight of Marzall’s tenure was the 1952 Patent Act, generally considered at the time to be the most important patent statute since the examining system started in 1836. The House Judiciary Committee published a preliminary draft of the legislation in 1950 and requested comments from the public. The committee circulated another draft in 1951 and held hearings.
Principal advisors to the committee on the bill’s drafting were P.J. Federico and Giles S. Rich, legendary figures in U.S. patent history. Federico was a member of the Patent Office Board of Appeals and a prolific author of articles on patent law. Rich was president of a patent bar association and later a judge on the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
The statute became law in 1952 and took effect on January 1, 1953. It was a rewrite of earlier statutes with changes in arrangement and language to make the law easier to understand. Several judicially created doctrines were codified in the 1952 act. A notable provision was the section on “nonobviousness,” which would not be interpreted by the Supreme Court until 1966 in Graham v. John Deere Co.
In his capacity as head of the office’s operations Marzall concentrated on reducing the work backlog. By 1952 no patent division was more than nine months behind. Appeals were decided in a month. He organized “The Commissioner’s Examining Division” to help patent divisions that had the unexamined applications with the oldest filing dates. A retired patent examiner, writing in 1957, recalled, “For the . . . purpose of reducing the backlog he set aside temporarily all extra-curricular activities of the examining corps which interfered to any extent with this purpose.”
Trademark application backlogs were also reduced. Trademark applications had increased after the 1947 effective date of the Trademark Act of 1946, commonly known as the Lanham Act. By the end of 1952 the office was examining trademark applications within six months after filing or amendment.
The Supreme Court decided significant patent cases during Marzall’s time in office. In Graver Tank & Mfg. Co. v. Linde Air Products Co. the court defined the doctrine of equivalents, under which a patent claim could be infringed by an equivalent device that did not infringe the claim literally. In Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. v. Supermarket Equipment Corp., dealing with a combination of elements, the Court said, “Courts should scrutinize combination patent claims with a care proportioned to the difficulty and improbability of finding invention in an assembly of old elements.”
Marzall resigned as commissioner on February 1, 1953, after the election of President Dwight Eisenhower, who succeeded President Truman. He returned to Chicago to practice law and died there on January 1, 1959.
P.J. Federico, Commentary on the New Patent Act [of 1952], republished at 75 JPTOS 161 (1993).
Hillel Marans, Forty Years of U.S. Patent Office 1917-1956, 39 JPOS 737 (1957).
USPTO, Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Patents (1950-53).
USPTO, The Story of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (1988).