The End Of Trust

John Sherman: “Cinema what?”

John Sherman never made a movie. The odds are pretty good that when he died in 1900 Sherman had no clue as to what this new medium was about. He may have attended several screenings but this was well before movies were to become the entertainment juggernaut.

Nickelodeons which were the forerunners of mass media entertainment still had not come into their own. There was no Hollywood or star system to speak of.

Yet independent filmmakers of early cinema owe this former Congressman, Senator and Secretary of Treasury a huge debt of thanks.

At the other end of the spectrum men like Thomas Edison almost certainly regretted the day the Ohio native ever considered a career in politics. If he had just kept his nose out of their business everything would have been fine.

The fact that he probably didn’t know what their business entailed is not the issue. He should have budded out anyway.

John Sherman may not have known their business but he knew about business. To his mind there was nothing wrong with companies making lots of money. Indeed Sherman himself was a very successful financier.

The problem was this was the era of trusts; corporations that utilized unscrupulous means to not only make a buck but crush anything that remotely resembled competition and thereby monopolizing that particular market.

There was a ridiculous amount of this going on in Sherman’s time. In truth it was so out of control that people feared for democracy itself. On July 2, 1890┬áthe federal government took a landmark step towards alleviating those fears when The President of the United States Benjamin Harrison signed into law the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

The law wasn’t perfect and it did not end the abuse overnight but at least now consumers had a weapon to fight back. Twenty five years after its enactment the Sherman Anti-Trust

By the late 19th century, trusts (corporations) had grown so powerful that many feared that democracy itself would not survive.

Act would be used to do battle against another monopoly. One that from the beginning had an unbreakable stranglehold on movies.

Thomas Alva Edison was one of the greatest and most prolific inventors the world has ever known.

The Wizard of Menlo Park’s contributions to society are staggering including the creation of arguably the first motion picture camera called the Kinetograph.

Edison was a shrewd businessman who knew not only how to make and promote his products but to protect them as well. For a time one of his products seemed to be the entire U.S movie industry.

Only a few years after the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, Edison had completely monopolized the movies. His patent of the Kinetograph allowed him to unleash an army of detectives and lawyers to ensure that nobody was using his equipment or something decidedly similar without his consent.

The result was complete domination of a fledgling industry. Yet it did not stop there. Edison went even further a few years later by telling U.S. distributors and Nickelodean owners in effect that if they were not using his equipment and only his equipment they were obviously asking to be sued. Since many did not have the time or money to fight back they went along with the program.

Thomas Edison. The original movie trust.

That was the feeling of quite of few filmmaking companies who finally came to the conclusion if you can’t beat them join them.

There was no winning the litigation wars against Edison so instead they sought to get licensing agreements from him and in doing so created the Motion Picture Patents Company.

Anyone who wanted to make movies in America had to go through the MPPC to do it. If they refused then the Company deemed it their right to do whatever was necessary to protect their interest.

If going to court didn’t work some busting some heads might just do the trick. A still new industry had become a big money business and in the mad scramble to get a bigger piece of the pie had also become quite ruthless. The power and control were centralized among a handful of individuals and their companies.

That came to an end in 1915 when the United States Government successfully sued the Motion Picture Patent Company. In their ruling against Edison and his cohorts a federal court found that the Company had gone above and beyond and not in a good way to protect their patents. In other words they were in direct violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

The MPCC did not vanish with this ruling but the writing was on the wall: Even before this ruling their days of absolute control were coming to an end. In three years the Motion Picture Patent Company was out of business for good and the doors for independent filmmakers opened up a lot wider.

All thanks to an Ohio politician who never lived long enough to see the impact he would have on the movies.

 

 

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