John Stossel's 'Give Me a Break'

By<i>Commentary<br>By <a href = "">John Stossel</a></i>

Aug. 1, 2003 -- — A patent is a useful thing. If you invent, say, the hula hoop, it's good that the U.S. Patent office will insure that no one but you has the right to sell it for 20 years. This encourages people to invent hula hoops, robotic arms, paper shredders, Gameboys, the Segway and other good things.

But peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Smucker's got an exclusive patent for the crustless, pre-packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But parents have been cuting off crusts for kids for years.

Does it matter if Smucker's holds a patent on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

It sure matters to Albie's, a small food maker in northern Michigan that invested a lot of money on machines that make a crustless, prepackaged PB&J. Albie's president, Regan Quall, got a scary letter from Smucker's lawyers saying production "must be halted at once."

Quall said he couldn't believe that a company could get a patent on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He has had to pay lawyers $40,000 to fight Smucker's patent. For now, he can still sell the sandwiches, but Smucker's lawyers are fighting to stop him.

Smucker's wouldn't agree to talk to me about all this, but sent a statement saying their pre-packaged "Uncrustable" sandwich is a "unique idea" and it "wouldn't be fair to let another company simply copy the product."

Please — it's a peanut butter sandwich. Yet, the patent office is still considering Smucker's claims. Why? Why'd they even give Smucker's a patent?

The patent office wouldn't agree to an interview either, but you get a better idea of what might have gone wrong if you visit their offices. In the computer age, the government agency in charge of cutting edge inventions stores most patent applications on paper — piles and piles of paper.

Somewhere in the patent and trademark offices Spike Lee has a trademark application submitted for his name. He hasn't gotten it yet, but recently he was able to get a court to prevent a TV network from changing its name to Spike TV.

Excuse me? What about spiked hair? What are those things on the bottom of golf shoes? And what about Spike of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? And what about all those real and cartoon dogs named Spike?

Maybe they should sue Spike Lee for stealing their name? Spike isn't even Spike Lee's real name. He was born Shelton Jackson Lee — Spike was a nickname his mother gave him.

Still, he got a settlement from the TV network. What did he get from the settlement? I don't know — the terms are secret.

Most recently, Mr. Ray, the manta ray in the Disney film Finding Nemo was the target of a lawsuit filed by a musician who calls himself Mr. Ray. He claims my employer, Disney, by marketing the manta ray character, could "obliterate and destroy" his reputation.

Hmm, maybe I should patent something? Maybe I should charge people a dollar every time they says, "Give Me a Break"?

Give ME a Break.

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