The Edison Movie Monopoly
The Motion Picture Patents Company vs. the Independent Outlaws
by J. A. Aberdeen
In December 1908, the motion picture inventors and industry leaders organized
the first great film trust called the Motion Picture Patents Company, designed
to bring stability to the chaotic early film years characterized by patent wars
and litigation. The Edison Film Manufacturing Company, the Biograph company, and
the other Motion Picture Patents members ended their competitive feuding in
favor of a cooperative system that provided industry domination. By pooling
their interests, the member companies legally monopolized the business, and
demanded licensing fees from all film producers, distributors, and exhibitors.
A January 1909 deadline was set for all companies to comply with the license.
By February, unlicensed outlaws, who referred to themselves as independents
protested the trust and carried on business without submitting to the Edison
monopoly. In the summer of 1909 the independent movement was in full-swing, with
producers and theater owners using illegal equipment and imported film stock to
create their own underground market.
With the country experiencing a tremendous expansion in the number of
nickelodeons, the Patents Company reacted to the independent movement by forming
a strong-arm subsidiary known as the General Film Company to block the entry of
non-licensed independents. With coercive tactics that have become legendary,
General Film confiscated unlicensed equipment, discontinued product supply to
theaters which showed unlicensed films, and effectively monopolized distribution
with the acquisition of all U.S. film exchanges, except for the one owned by the
independent William Fox who defied the Trust even after his license was revoked.
"outlaws" like William Fox defied the trust, and ultimately
beat the trust producing films many Trust companies were reluctant to
showcase. Pictured here is one of Fox's earliest sensations, the sex
vamp, Theda Bara.
Many of the early independents were resilient film exhibitors who ventured
into production when they found their supply of film threatened. Carl Laemmle
(Independent Motion Picture Company or IMP), Harry E. Aitken (Majestic Films),
and Adolph Zukor (Famous Players) were among the pioneering independents who
protested the Trust, and then laid the foundation for the Hollywood studios.
Having entered the business through exhibition, they determined that they liked
production better, and got out of the theater business as the nickelodeon boom
ended around 1911.
As the independent outlaws flourished, the Motion Picture Patents Company was
also hit with antitrust charges by the United States government. In October
1915, the courts determined that the Patents Company and its General Film
division acted as a monopoly in restraint of trade, and later ordered it
disintegrated. But clearly by the time the decision was handed down, the
independents had already outmaneuvered the Trust. The Edison monopoly had taken
a retrogressive stance to the innovative industry reforms introduced by the
At a time when the American independents and foreign filmmakers were creating
feature length movies, the Trust clung to the familiar short-film format.
Generally speaking, the Patents Trust also resisted turning their stock actors
into recognizable performers, while the outlaws like Laemmle and Zukor were
developing the star system into a powerful marketing tool. Furthermore, by
moving their studios out west, the outlaws were not only capitalizing on
California's optimal year-round outdoor shooting conditions, they were also
pioneering a division between the east-coast business headquarters and the
west-coast production operation that became another trademark of the Hollywood
studio system. Historians of early film have pointed out that each of these
innovations originated within the ranks of the Patents Company. However the
unwillingness of the Trust to adapt to the changes cleared the way for the rise
of the Hollywood studio system while the Edison monopoly perished.
Information on the Motion Picture Patents Company, General
Film Company, and Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Company from Bowser, pp.
27-36, 79-85, 221; Lahue, Dreams for Sale, pp. 19-22; Stanley, The
Celluloid Empire, pp. 12-18; Hampton, History of the American Film
Industry, pp. 64-82; Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film, pp.
81-94, and Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights, pp. 526-527.