A Trap For Santa: The First Santa Claus IP Fight

PosterAt this time of year, you may be wondering about the first intellectual property case involving Santa Claus. And even if you are not, we are going to tell you.

The Biograph Company was founded in 1895 by William Kennedy Dickson, a former employee of Thomas Edison. Biograph became known for its two-minute long documentaries made using a 68mm film format (in order to avoid the litigious Edison’s patents on 35mm technology), but over time it began making short narrative films instead. These films became more popular after Biograph took a chance in 1908 and handed the puffy director pants to a failed playwright from Kentucky.

By 1909, Biograph films were leased to exhibitors through the Motion Picture Patent Company (MPPC), nicknamed the “Edison Trust,” which was comprised of all the major American film companies. Only through a restrictive license agreement with the MPPC could an exhibitor show films bearing the Biograph trademark and made with the trust’s patented technology. But at some point, several Biograph prints seem to have ended up in the hands of upstart distributer International Film Traders (IFT). Among these titles was A Trap for Santa, a silent film about a family whose fortunes dramatically change just in time for Christmas.

StillBiograph brought an action for replevin to reclaim the films, but the Municipal Court of the City of New York dismissed the claim, apparently on the grounds that IFT was a bona fide purchaser of the prints. Biograph appealed and, in 1912, the Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Term, reversed.  The Court held that, because the prints bore the Biograph trademark, and because IFT claims to have purchased them from someone other than Biograph, that purchase could not have been lawful. The Court was also less than impressed with IFT’s explanation about where it purchased the films, which apparently never got much more detailed than “some guy in Europe.” The Court ordered that the prints be returned.

There isn’t much information available about what happened to IFT, but in 1915, the MPPC was dissolved by the Eastern District of Pennsylvania as a result of an antitrust lawsuit filed by the federal government. With its trust busted, Biograph fell on hard times, and ceased to be an independent company in 1928. However, you can still see A Trap for Santa here on YouTube. The failed playwright from Kentucky who directed it, DW Griffith, went on to become one of the industry’s most iconic and controversial figures, directing films such as Birth of the Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).  And by the way, the bit role of the bartender is played by a young Mack Sennett, just a few years before he gave up acting, founded Keystone Studios and launched the film career of Charlie Chaplin.

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