Day 569: The Motion Picture Patents Company (Or How Thomas Edison Was A Dick About The Film Business)

originally published July 22, 2013

Ask any conspiracy nut – or in fact anyone who knows anything about the state of modern media, because in this case, the conspiracy nuts are bang-on correct – and they’ll tell you, a shockingly small number of companies control almost all the mass media that we as a culture imbibe. This is not an alarmist statistic; according to Business Insider, where once there were 50 companies patrolling the media landscape, now there are six.

Six. That’s it – 90% of the newspapers, magazines, TV stations, movie studios and online news sources we drink in are run by six massive corporations: Comcast, Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Time-Warner and CBS. Is this a shocking warning signal of the deterioration of our Information Age? Or is it history repeating itself?

Let’s ask our old buddy, Thomas Edison. A hundred years ago, while newspapers were still largely independent, and TV and radio stations possessed the pure freedom of not having been invented yet, Edison had a tighter grip on the pubes of the motion picture industry than a wayward elastic in a cheap pair of briefs.

He ran the MPPC.

During the first decade of the 20th century, there weren’t a lot of people making movies. This was partly due to the new-ness of the art form, but more likely because Thomas Edison would sue the crap out of anyone who tried to enter the industry. He owned the patents on almost everything related to the technology of film production, and he spent a lot of time in court trying to ensure no other company but Edison Studios could use them.

Biograph was one company that was able to fly under the radar, because their founder, William Kennedy Dickson (a former Edison employee) was savvy enough to build a slightly different camera design. But that was minor competition with limited output; early movie houses had to resort to importing British and French films in order to keep the movies fresh and the public interested. In 1907, the few American companies still treading water in the business approached Edison to make a deal.

There was Essanay Studios, the first major outfit to lure Charlie Chaplin away from his Mack Sennett roots with a thick, yummy contract. Kalem Studios, the first to try to make Ben Hur into a movie. Selig Studios, which launched the careers of Tom Mix and Harold Lloyd before gradually becoming a zoo (literally). Lubin, based out of Philadelphia. Vitagraph, which was later bought out by Warner Brothers and used to move Looney Tunes cartoons. And American Pathé, the US wing of France’s (and really Europe’s) biggest studio.

That was it, that was the Motion Picture Patents Company – six studios teaming up with Edison and setting up a system that would keep everyone else out of the business. Biograph was not invited, because Edison wanted to squeeze them into oblivion.

The first step was to confront the film distributors and inform them they would no longer be buying film reels, but renting them instead – only the ones the MPPC would approve. Prices for film rental were set as a standard, which meant the competition between MPPC studios was not to make ‘em cheap, but to make ‘em well. This was a good thing. But for any independent up-and-comers, the MPPC was a big ol’ booger in their soup.

Eastman Kodak, who owned the patent on film stock – somewhat necessary to produce a movie back then – also shook hands with the MPPC and agreed not to sell stock to anyone but members. Biograph, the perpetual middle-finger in Edison’s money-grubbing face, kept themselves alive by finding film stock through back channels and buying the patent to the Latham loop.

The Latham loop is the mechanism that isolates the strip of film from tension and vibration, and thus allows film cameras and projectors to operate for extended periods without snapping the film in two. And here I mean all cameras and projectors, including the ones used by the organization that was trying to keep Biograph out of the movie business. With this little technology coup, Biograph was able to work their way through the MPPC door and stay in business.

Even content was regulated. Not sex and violence – those weren’t even on the table back then, but the very length of films was mandated by the honchos of the MPPC. One reel, nothing more. That’s about 13-17 minutes per movie, at least until competition from overseas forced them to allow for more.

Independent filmmakers were opening themselves up to lawsuits as well as jail time for violating the patent padlock of the MPPC. And when it wasn’t convenient to call up federal officers to go after the independents, the MPPC had no problem dialing in to their connections in organized crime. This was a time of true guerilla filmmaking, and the independents had only one option remaining to make their dreams happen.

Not only was Southern California the best guarantee of sunshine in the country, along with a bountiful variety of natural topography for different movie genres, but it was an entire nation away from Edison and the other MPPC companies, which were all located in the northeast. As an added bonus, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, was not known for enforcing patent law.

It was the perfect out.

In 1911, Eastman Kodak modified their agreement with the MPPC, allowing them to sell to whomever they damn well wanted to. Within a year, independents were filling half of the country’s movie houses. And while the old farts in the MPPC resisted making full-length feature films, independent movie-makers were happy to tell a full, sprawling story. Then in 1913, the original patents on the equipment ran out. The MPPC was losing their hold on the movie industry. But at least they still had full dominance when it came to the overseas market – Johnny Movie-Man way out in Hollywood had no connections to get his film shown in Europe.

Oh, right. That inconvenient war.

World War I not only cut off the European market, which had no desire to spend valuable bullet-bucks on importing movies, but it also temporarily sedated film production from those countries. This meant the heart and soul of filmmaking world-wide was in America, and the independents were gaining a lot of ground. The US Federal Court stepped in and in 1915, an official ruling of illegal restraint of trade put an end to the Motion Picture Patents Company.

It should be noted that the iron-clad titans of the 20th century of film: Paramount, Universal, Columbia, 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers, these were the plucky, fresh-faced independents who beat out Edison and the MPPC.

Today we face an oligopoly of media, not because of patent-related dickheadery, but because of an increasingly corporate culture, one that does not appear poised to change gears anytime soon. So support your local independents while you can – there may not be much choice left before long.

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