Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

Forget the hubbub over Napster, or even that inane “one-click” lawsuit between Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. We need to talk about the IP food fight over U.S. Patent 6,004,596.

Hold on to your lunchboxes, Technology Review readers. This legal squabble pits J. M. Smucker, beloved maker of jam, against tiny, Gaylord, MI-based Albie’s Foods. For reasons that elude me, Smucker’s lawyers decided to try to enforce the firm’s exclusive rights to-I’m not making this up-its patented version of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Owning the PB&J sandwich? Talk about an affront to mom and apple pie!

Now, it’s the reasoning of the Smucker legal eagles that I really want to address. But I know you levelheaded Technology Review readers will find the notion of a patented PB&J pretty, well, hard to swallow. So before we go further, I invite you to look it up for yourself. (Go to www.uspto.gov/patft and enter the aforementioned patent number.) Then you too can marvel at this U.S. patent, granted in December 1999. You can experience firsthand its claim to a “first bread layer having a first perimeter surface coplanar to a contact surface” and its careful legalistic delineation “wherein said first filling” is “comprised of peanut butter” and a “second filling is comprised of a jelly.”

To uphold my commitment to journalistic accuracy, I must acknowledge that Smucker (through its Ohio subsidiary Menusaver) has not patented any old PB&J, but a breathtakingly novel version called a “sealed crustless sandwich.” Smucker markets the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as “Uncrustables,” proclaiming them to be “the perfect grab-and-go’ sandwich for families on the move.”

Furthermore, I must note that I have not yet had the opportunity to personally sample an “Uncrustable.” Still, at the risk of spurring further lawsuits, I cannot help but notice from the picture on the box that they look suspiciously similar to plump, untoasted Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts! But I digress.

It is the legal reasoning that interests me, and it begins with Smucker’s justification for its claim of exclusivity. As Smucker’s lawyers explain in the patent, “There is currently no method or device for baking bread without having an outer crust. Hence there is a need”-people, there is a need!- “for a convenient sandwich which does not have an outer crust and which is not prone to waste of the edible outer crust portions.”

The truth is, leaving aside, if you can, the colossal idiocy of this patent, we are confronted with the monumentally misguided judgment of the Smucker lawyers in actually trying to enforce it when Albie’s started making their own crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwich-the E.Z. Jammer. And-all kidding aside-the Smucker debacle epitomizes the biggest problem with intellectual property as it is practiced today: it’s so often dramatically overreaching.

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Tagged: Business

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me