Trademark, while generally one of the better forms of intellectual property as used in practice and in purpose, can certainly still be abused. It can also fall victim to an ever-growing ownership culture that seems to have invaded the American mind like some kind of brain-eating amoeba. And that's how we've arrived here today, a day in which I get to tell you about how there is currently a trademark dispute over the flavor of pizza
. And no, I'm not joking.
New York Pizzeria, Inc. is the plaintiff in this case that was brought after its former president allegedly conspired to create a knockoff restaurant chain called Gina's Italian Kitchen using NYPI's recipes, suppliers and internal documents. The lawsuit includes an allegation of a computer hack, but we'll focus on the judge's analysis of the trademark claims.
"Intellectual property plays a prominent and growing role in our Information Age economy," opens Texas judge Gregg Costa's opinion this week. "In this case, though, the plaintiff seeks intellectual property protection for something quite traditional: the meal one might order at a neighborhood pizzeria."
So, we have two pizza shops in a fight over ingredients and flavor. What NYPI is claiming is specifically
centered around the resulting flavor of the two pizzas as a matter of trademark infringement. The claim is that their flavor is distinct. So distinct, in fact, that consumers would recognize it as solely NYPI's, even if coming from Gina's Italian Kitchen. The judge, as it turns out, was exceptionally good on this claim.
"As with colors, it is unlikely that flavors can ever be inherently distinctive, because they do not 'automatically' suggest a product's source," he writes. But even if pizza fans can close their eyes, bite into one, and recognize a slice of New York Pizzeria when they taste it, Judge Costa gives a second reason why trademark protection can't extend to taste: "Functional product features are not protectable," he writes.
The judge points to a prior decision at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board as precedent. a pharmaceutical company attempted to gain a trademark on the orange flavor of its medicine, but that was ruled out-of-bounds when the TTAB decided that by flavoring a disagreeable taste, the company merely "performs a utilitarian function that cannot be monopolized without hindering competition in the pharmaceutical trade."
Judge Costa goes on to note that the scrutiny of trademark law applying to the flavor of pizza logically should be much greater than even the flavor of medicine. It's a very nice way of calling this whole thing silly and telling everyone to go home. The case has been summarily dismissed, thankfully. Were this sort of dispute allowed to find any kind of foothold, a well-functioning foods industry could be tossed completely for a loop. The trademark-able flavor angle would essentially be an end-around the fact that copyright doesn't apply to recipes. After all, if you can simply protect the end result of the recipe, what would be the difference?