Watch Your Mouth: Can You Patent a Sandwich? Can You Patent a Sandwich?

What one peanut butter and jelly sandwich says about the wrongs of intellectual property rights.

On a summer’s day in 1995, David Geske and Len Kretchman are hanging out on Geske’s Fargo, North Dakota patio. Geske is in the ice business. Kretchman works as a consultant. At some point, their wives, Kristen and Emily, head inside to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and their kids file a standard childhood culinary request with their moms: No crusts, please. Later, the women relay the request to their husbands. “You guys should make a sandwich with no crust,” they tell them.

The two men run with the idea, and begin mass-producing pre-baked, crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for schools. Kretchman and Geske crimp the ends of the sammy and wrap it all in freezer-ready foil so that by the time lunchtime rolls around, kids could eat a thawed sandwich. Later, Kretchman and Geske sell the idea to jelly giant J.M. Smucker Co., and in 1999, a Smucker’s subsidiary submits patent number 6,004,596 for a “Sealed Crustless Sandwich”—a round peanut butter and jelly sandwich with no crust, sealed in a foil wrapper.

Kretchman and Geske didn’t just lift this idea from their own kin—men, women and children everywhere have been snacking on crustless sandwiches long before Smucker’s claimed ownership over the idea. But, as Jonathan Lethem notes in an article for Harper's onThe Ecstasy of Influence,” patent requests like this reflect a wider cultural shift. Today, even the Girl Scouts must pay royalties for singing songs around the campfire. “We in Western society are going through a period of intensifying belief in private ownership,” Lethem writes, “to the detriment of the public good.”

The patent office has an entire category devoted to “Food or Edible Material: Processes, Compositions, and Products,” which covers a staggering number of enzymes, additives, processes, formulations, and reformulations that transform our food. Sandwich-related patents in particular reflect the range of American culinary ingenuity and absurdity. Inventors of the “Glove Use While Eating,” the “Cucumber Sandwich,” and the “Sandwich Grill” have all been issued patents.

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.

By 2001, Smucker’s had turned the patent into product, billed it as “The perfect grab-and-go sandwich for families on the move,” and started selling the patented PB&Js like cold, individually-wrapped hotcakes. According to filings at the time, the sandwiches—dubbed Uncrustables, a not-so-subtle rip-off of Lunchables—accounted for $15 million in revenue in just a year and a half. The big jam company wanted to protect its investment, so it got aggressive against other outlets hoping to capitalize off the classic crustless PB&J. Its legal team filed three separate proceedings of patent infringement against Albie’s, a pasty maker in Gaylord, Michigan, for selling crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they called E.Z. Jammers.

Albie’s fought back—and for good reason. In Michigan, pasties do not refer to appliques on strippers' nipples (pronounced pay-steez), but rather turnovers with pie-like crusts filled with stew (pás-teez). These little pouches of stew are on-the-go food from an earlier time, or as folklorist William Lockwood calls them, “‘functional food’ for working immigrants.” In this context, Albie’s argued that its crustless PB&J pasties spawned from a tradition that dated back a lot longer—and had been handled by a lot more palms—than Uncrustables.

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. Even the recent America Invents Act, signed earlier this month by President Obama, won’t stop some of the more questionable patents. As Adam Jaffe and Josh Lerner write in Innovation and Its Discontents, it’s become all too common for patents to be granted without clear evidence of invention or obvious novelty, and the crustless sandwich is hardly the worst offender. Jaffe and Lerner cite patents issued for a “Bread Refreshing Method” and a “Method on Exercising a Cat.” If a patent once acted as a knife to fend off imitators in self-defense, Jaffe and Lerner write, then the crustless sandwich provided evidence that the patent office was indiscriminately distributing bazookas. Only in the rare case does a little pasty maker, making use of a healthy public domain, fight back and win.

For sandwich lovers everywhere, here’s one last reason why Smucker’s shouldn’t own the crustless sandwich: Uncrustables just don’t taste very good. In examining this case for Gastronomica, Anna M. Shih paired her food patent law investigation with some field tasting. Shih got halfway through an Uncrustables before tossing the rest in the trash and reaffirming her commitment to consuming sandwiches the old-fashioned way—with the crust cut off and the edges crimped by hand. After all, the sandwich belongs to all of us.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

RELATED: He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

RELATED: 'High Castle' producers destroyed every swastika used on the show and the video is oh-so satisfying

In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

Center for American Progress Action Fund

Tonight's Democratic debate is a must-watch for followers of the 2020 election. And it's a nice distraction from the impeachment inquiry currently enveloping all of the political oxygen in America right now.

For most people, the main draw will be newly anointed frontrunner Pete Buttigieg, who has surprisingly surged to first place in Iowa and suddenly competing in New Hampshire. Will the other Democrats attack him? How will Elizabeth Warren react now that she's no longer sitting alone atop the primary field? After all, part of Buttigieg's rise has been his criticisms of Warren and her refusal to get into budgetary specifics over how she'd pay for her healthcare plan.

The good news is that Joe Biden apparently counts time travel amongst his other resume-building experience.

Keep Reading Show less
via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

RELATED: Alan Turing will appear on the 50-pound note nearly 70 years after being persecuted for his sexuality

Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?

via Gage Skidmore / Flickr and nrkbeta / flickr

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) dropped a bombshell on Tuesday, announcing it had over 900 emails that White House aide Stephen Miller sent to former Breitbart writer and editor Katie McHugh.

According to the SPLC, in the emails, Miller aggressively "promoted white nationalist literature, pushed racist immigration stories and obsessed over the loss of Confederate symbols after Dylann Roof's murderous rampage."

Keep Reading Show less