A radical cure for the ailing U.S. patent system
By Adam B. Jaffe & Josh Lerner
ALBIE'S FOODS INC., a small grocery and catering company in Gaylord, Mich., received an unusual letter in 2001 from the law firm representing jelly giant J.M. Smucker Co. The letter accused Albie's—which sells pastries and sandwiches in northern Michigan—of violating Smucker's intellectual property by selling crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
In particular, Smucker's claimed that Albie's had infringed Smucker's recently granted U.S. Patent No. 6004596, which gives the Orrville, Ohio, company broad protection on its "sealed crustless sandwich." In a move that undoubtedly surprised the jam magnates, Albie's decided to defend itself in federal court. Albie's law firm noted in its filings that the "pasty"—a meat pie with crimped edges—has been popular fare in northern Michigan since the immigration of copper and iron miners from Cornwall, England, in the 19th century.
A battle in federal court over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches may seem merely funny and a little pathetic. But it is symptomatic of the larger and more profound problems with the U.S. patent system. We have reached the point where serious lawyers are being paid serious fees by a big company to shut down the PB&J operation of a grocery store.