General Mills Granted A Design Patent On A Tortilla Bowl Because Why Even Pretend Anymore?

from the patent-thicket dept

While we've talked in the past about how absurd design patents can get, it's worth pointing out that, hey, shit's not getting any less absurd, people. Design patents, as opposed to utility patents, function more like trademarks. The idea is that the "invention" in the case of design patents are supposed to be unique outputs of what might otherwise not be unique inventions that are then said to act as some sort of single-source invented thing. Honestly, the whole concept smells of a workaround on the actual purpose of patent law and it tends to function that way as well. How else do you explain the design patent granted on a toothpick with some lines carved into it, for instance? Or Apple's design patent on the animation of turning a page within an ebook? Rewarding exclusivity to these types of "inventions" that barely work up the sweat of an "inventor" should seem absurd to you, as should the frequency with which the public is left wondering where exactly the "invention" is in any of this.

Which brings us to General Mills and its recently granted design patent on tortilla bowls.

General Mills Inc. has received a patent for a bowl-shaped tortilla. It's just a single patent and probably not a big item for General Mills (NYSE: GIS), but the concept of a tortilla bowl seems so simple that it's interesting the Golden Valley-based food giant sought and received the patent.

No, not interesting, annoying. Annoying and frustratingly believable, as the USPTO appears to mostly be in the business of seeing just how far it can stretch the concept of invention by granting these sorts of design patents. And there doesn't appear to be much unique about this tortilla bowl. Here are some of the images from the patent:



Such a unique design. Or not.

Tortilla bowls have been around for roughly ever, as best as I can tell, appearing in stores and restaurants all over the place. I even vaguely remember a walking-talking basketball getting some attention a while back for tweeting out an image of him enjoying a tortilla bowl on Cinco de Mayo.


And, yet, the USPTO saw fit to grant General Mills this design patent for the glorious invention of a thing that's been around forever. That the company named its "invention" an "ornamental design for a shaped tortilla" only drives home the absurdity that has become the realm of design patents, where invention can mean anything and the USPTO applies zero critical thinking to the application process.

Asked to comment on this patent, a company spokesman offered up this content-less reply.

"We file patents all the time," General Mills spokesman Mike Siemienas said.

And why not, given that the approval process for those patents appears to be some kind of assembly line culminating with a mechanical tipping bird that has an "APPROVED!" stamp super-glued to its beak? Still, I somehow doubt that the founders had any intention of rewarding patents for such non-inventions as a tortilla bowl.


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  • identicon
    David, 24 Jun 2016 @ 3:32am

    Coming up next:

    The toilet bowl.

    Worth a try.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2016 @ 3:57am

    The patent system is broken,
    you no longer need to pretend to invent something,
    just send pay and for a design patent on a basic design ,
    invented by someone else years ago in common use.
    maybe i can get a design patent on 2button mouse
    with a slider button in the centre .
    Apple did not invent phones with rounded corners and retangular screens .
    did they not even do an image search for prior art .
    Real inventors would not patent things already invented in common use.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    klaus (profile), 24 Jun 2016 @ 4:30am

    Oh dear...

    America. Even more fucked up than Europe right now.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anon, 24 Jun 2016 @ 4:56am

    user fees

    Apparently in ~1991, Congress got the dumb idea that the USPTO should be funded by user fees, not taxpayers. So the understaffed/underfunded USPTO took the view: "Grant it, collect the fee, let the courts sort it out." With predictable results. Blame Congress.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 24 Jun 2016 @ 5:16am

      Re: user fees

      More than enough blame to go around, congress for providing incentive to approve as many patent submissions as possible in order to keep the lights on, the patent office for continually approving such boneheaded submissions.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Wendy Cockcroft, 24 Jun 2016 @ 6:01am

        Re: Re: user fees

        It's neoliberalism: let the market take care of it. And whaddaya know? The market sodding well took care of it; there's a ready supply of bogus protectionism and a great deal of demand for it. The system works, I tell you! \o/

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Berenerd (profile), 24 Jun 2016 @ 6:41am

    I am starting a new business. Insanity LLC. My first patent will be flatbread bowls. I am looking for investors...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2016 @ 7:24am

    Design Patent are supposed to be unique

    The idea of the design patent is that is supposed to patent a unique design that is not required for the product to function:

    Case in point, the original Coca-Cola bottle. The bottle shape is not necessary to hold in the liquid, but it is a unique and distinctive shape. That is why it originally had a design patent granted to it.

    http://www.patentadesign.com/gallery/coca-cola-bottle-design-patent.html

    The tortilla bowl in the patent application doesn't even come close to meeting that standard. The Patent Office needs to be reformed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 24 Jun 2016 @ 10:32am

      Re: Design Patent are supposed to be unique

      Yeah, I ate a taco salad out of a tortilla bowl exactly like the one shown once a week or two for years back in the early 90's. I've had various TexMex served in virtually identical bowls all across the US over the last three decades... which is the whole point. Some lawyer saw how ubiquitous these bowls were, did a design patent search that turned up negative, and saw dollar signs.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    sophisticatedjanedoe (profile), 24 Jun 2016 @ 8:14am

    If you want to see more design patent absurdities, you should visit Sara Burstein's tumblr or follow her on Twitter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Zarvus (profile), 24 Jun 2016 @ 8:15am

    You know, for kids!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    radarmonkey (profile), 24 Jun 2016 @ 8:15am

    Thorough Reporting

    Has TD ever thought of reaching out to the named 'inventors' of this patent for comment on the absurdity of it? Not GM, but Robert Clements, et al? I could think of a thousand questions beyond the rhetorical "Isn't this obvious?" This would be not to harass, but to really delve into the the 'creative' process that goes into such a 'unique' invention!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Steerpike (profile), 24 Jun 2016 @ 9:42am

    Looking in PAIR, it doesn't look like General Mills even had to fight for this. There was never a rejection of the patent. That's not so uncommon in design patent cases, but still...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TechDescartes (profile), 24 Jun 2016 @ 10:19am

    How many General Mills employees does it take to invent the tortilla bowl?

    Four, it takes four: Robert Clements of Plymouth, Shivakumar Elayedath of Eden Prairie, Amy Fleury of Arden Hills and Zachary Harder of Crystal.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 24 Jun 2016 @ 10:58am

    Well, at least it's a design patent

    It would be worse if it was a real patent.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mark Wing, 24 Jun 2016 @ 12:01pm

    It's an exciting time to be a lover of Mexican food with all this innovation in the tortilla sector.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2016 @ 2:57pm

    Patents have been reduced to nothing more than a bureaucratic ritual of "I stake claim to THIS THING" - "Yes, we acknowledge that you do..."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 24 Jun 2016 @ 7:22pm

      Re:

      The patent being discussed here is a design patent. Design patents are intended to be pretty much just as you describe. They are not at all like the patents usually discussed (utility patents), in that they aren't about new inventions. They're about distinctive design.

      In many ways, they're more like trademarks than patents.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Nawang Gombu, 25 Jun 2016 @ 10:28am

      Re: Jim Whittaker

      Bastard said he was first up Everest but it was me. Can I have the design patent on climbing Mt. Everest?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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