Patenting PB&J


Peter Smith recounts the ultimately failed attempt by Smucker's Uncrustables:

In order to secure a patent, inventions are expected to meet standards for novelty, usefulness, and "non-obviousness." That last bit is probably the biggest source for patent disputes. Patent No. 6,004,596’s usefulness was not in question. But a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is both mundane and obvious, even if you’ve cut off the crust, crimped the edges, and frozen it whole. Still, a patent examiner named Lien Tran approved the patent on the grounds that the invention was not just a sandwich: It was a sandwich within a sandwich. By surrounding the jelly filling on both sides with peanut butter so the bread didn’t get soggy, Tran determined, the inventors were on to something new. …

Smucker's continued to assert that its sandwich-making process was unique and worthy of protection, but as it turns out, the crimped edges of Uncrustables actually look a lot like ravioli. Upon re-examination, the patent office even noted that sandwiching jelly between two layers of peanut butter was not novel—it unearthed a citation in The Wichita Eagle from 1994, explaining the very method as a back-to-school tip for keeping sandwiches free from sogginess. A court ultimately rejected the patent in 2005. The story of the patented PB&Js is a convenient parable for the vast overreach and rampant abuse of intellectual property in the United States.

(Photo by Flickr user spike55151)