Appeals Court: No, You Can't Copyright A Chicken Sandwich

from the though-you-can-indict-a-ham-sandwich dept

There's a famous line about grand juries and their willingness to indict anything prosecutors put in from of them, that they will "indict a ham sandwich" (coined by a judge who was later indicted himself in an effort to prove the point). But, someone apparently asked, can you copyright a chicken sandwich? This apparently serious legal question was recently taken up by the First Circuit appeals court to review a dispute about who owns the idea for a chicken sandwich.

The backstory is that a guy named Norbeto Colon Lorenzana, working for Church's Chicken (owned by South American Restaurant Corporation, or SARCO) in Puerto Rico, thought that the restaurant should add a chicken sandwich to the menu. His bosses tested out some recipes and settled on the following recipe (which does not seem all that original): "a fried chicken breast patty, lettuce, tomato, American cheese, and garlic mayonnaise on a bun." Church's dubbed this the "Pechu Sandwich" and apparently it sold pretty well at Church's Chicken. Colon apparently decided that because it was his idea, he deserved a cut of every sale. And thus he sued for trademark and copyright violations (sorta, as you'll see)... because popular culture keeps falsely telling people that "intellectual property" must "protect" any possible "idea" they ever come up with, no matter how common or obvious it is, and no matter whether or not those ideas are even remotely protectable.

The lower court correctly laughed this out of court, and Colon appealed, only to find the appeals court similarly unamused. Not surprisingly, apparently Colon's original complaint was so devoid of actual legal arguments that the court decided to "generously glean a claim for violations of the Copyright Act and a second claim under the Lanham Act for trademark infringement." As the ruling notes in a footnote, Colon didn't actually state either such thing, but the court said he claim close enough, and then in a reply to the company's motion to dismiss, Colon clearly was relying on copyright law, so it's a "copyright claim" even if the original complaint failed to make such a claim. The court also notes that "Colon does not seize upon the generosity of the district court and fails to develop any argument in his appellate briefing related to trademark infringement," so it drops the (bogus) trademark arguments entirely.

Either way, even with the court "generously" saying there's a copyright claim, there isn't actually a copyright claim, because this is a freaking chicken sandwich.
Contrary to Colón's protests on appeal, the district court properly determined that a chicken sandwich is not eligible for copyright protection. This makes good sense; neither the recipe nor the name Pechu Sandwich fits any of the eligible categories and, therefore, protection under the Copyright Act is unwarranted. A recipe -- or any instructions -- listing the combination of chicken, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and mayonnaise on a bun to create a sandwich is quite plainly not a copyrightable work.... As for the "Pechu Sandwich" moniker, we have previously held that "copyright protection simply does not extend to 'words and short phrases, such as names, titles, and slogans.'"
The court separately rejects Colon's claim that SARCO registered the trademark in the sandwich by fraud (apparently in not giving it to him or something). The court again has trouble figuring out what he means, because he has no explanation:
We need not linger over the potential elements of a Section 38 claim or the application of Rule 9(b) because the complaint fails for a more fundamental reason. It simply fails to sufficiently allege that any false statement exists. Colon merely offers conjecture about SARCO's actions and intentions. He avers that SARCO "intentionally, willfully, fraudulently and maliciously procured the registration of Plaintiff's creation in the Patent and Trademark Office without his consent and . . . with the intent to injure the Plaintiffs," but the complaint is silent as to any facts to support such conclusions.
These kinds of lawsuits are what you get when you keep telling people that ideas are "ownable" and that anyone who does anything with your idea must be somehow infringing on your rights. Thankfully, the courts have quickly dumped this, but it's still a waste of time and resources.
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Filed Under: 1st circuit, chicken, chicken sandwich, copyright, noberto colon lorenzana, ownership society, pechu sandwich, recipes, trademark
Companies: church's chicken, sarco


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Aug 2015 @ 11:40am

    No need to evaluate copyright/trademark/patent here

    Norbeto Colon Lorenzana worked for the company when he came up with the idea of the chicken sandwich.

    Therefore it was a work for hire and as such any "rights" of said idea belong to the company not Norbeto.

    Had Norbeto not had his head up his middle name all of this woud have been obvious.

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