TALBOT and Patent restrictions

In the brief biography of Fox Talbot reference has been made to the fact that the progress of photography had been somewhat arrested by his enforcement of the patents he had taken out. Whilst this is a fact, it would be perhaps unfair to suggest that it was Talbot's intention to restrict those who wished to practise photography on an amateur basis.

Robert Hunt, who was one of those responsible for the establishment of the Royal Photographic Society, was instrumental in gaining a generous concession. Writing to another colleague, Peter Fry, he states: "...it is clear that a man cannot practise the Calotype, for his own amusement even, without a licence from the patentee, but he has no wish to act on this. Eventually I got Mr. Fox Talbot to a definite proposition. He says, if a Photographic Society is formed upon a very respectable basis, he will give a licence to every member of the Society to practise the Art; with the following conditions:"

Among these conditions was that the Society should not trade in photographs.

The letter continues: "I must say that Mr. Fox Talbot clearly desires to make no profit by his process where it is used for amusement or for scientific enquiry. He appears quite disposed to put as few restrictions as possible on the progress of photography. He tells me that he has spent 7,000 in his patents, etc., on the Art...."

A letter from Fox Talbot to Robert Hunt, dated 24 March 1852 reads: "I have already stated to you that my desire is to give a free permission to the members of the Society to exercise the art for their own amusement, they on their part acknowledging my rights as inventor and patentee."

A postscript to the letter reads; "I assure you that I have the best wishes for the formation of a prosperous society, but it appears to me that there is not much reciprocity of feeling on the part of those who would naturally take a leading part in it."

Negotiations with the Society of Arts took place, with a view to hiring a room for regular meetings, and the Society also played an influential part in obtaining a relinquishment of Talbot's patent restrictions. Sir Charles Eastlake, (then President of the Royal Academy), who was to be the Society's first President, appealed to Talbot, who responded on 30th July that year, making his invention free to all, with the only exception of portraits for sale. Two years later he abandoned even this right, to the appreciation of all but the professional photographers.

Sir Charles Eastlake, at the new Society's inaugural meeting, said: "To him we are also indebted for the liberality with which he has thrown open his invention to the enterprise of men of science, of amateurs, and of artists."

© Robert Leggat, 1997.