The lowly peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Who would ever have thought it could evolve (or mutate) into so many different forms — from the peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwich (Elvis’ favorite), to the peanut-butter-frosted jelly doughnut, to the Bukowski Tavern’s famous Peanut Butter Burger (with onions)? And who would have suspected that one day its humble provenance would be questioned, sparking a decade-long series of lawsuits over ownership rights? Not I. An intellectual property dispute over who owns the rights to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich? I doubt even Nostradamus could have predicted that.
Nonetheless, reality once again proved itself stranger than fiction when Smucker’s decided to try and patent the crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwich — and succeeded. Though Smucker’s was mocked in the press for its hubris, and peanut butter pundits everywhere inveighed on the impropriety of patenting the pedestrian PB & J, the company marched full speed ahead with its plan for world peanut butter domination, and was only briefly foiled when the PTO subsequently denied its patent for a “crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwich fabrication machine.” That setback was brushed aside when Smucker’s discovered a blatant case of patent infringement in the heartland of America, and brought suit against Pierre Foods for foolishly trying to evade the strictures of patent law by offering consumers a “square” crustless PB & J rather than the “round” version marketed by Smucker’s. (In Pierre’s defense, their sandwich was also cut in half).
Now, of course, Smucker’s Uncrustables® are found in grade school lunchboxes everywhere, and the company is consolidating its power by buying up other, frankly superior, brands of peanut butter. Thus, my personal favorite, Laura Scudder’s (Crunchy), has fallen under Smucker’s sway, and though it remains widely available, its future is uncertain. Will it survive as a stand-alone brand in the vast sea of peanut butter varieties, or will Smucker’s pull the plug (a la Starbucks) and shut down the competitor it just purchased? I, for one, do not look forward to the prospect of returning to the brands of my youth. Those once-promising relationships with Peter Pan, Skippy, Jif, and even Koogle Butter were cast aside as my taste buds transformed from those of a 10-year-old boy into the more-mature palate of a teenage gourmand. And now, of course — some 30 years later — there is no going back.
On a more upbeat note, those of you interested in non-traditional uses of peanut butter and jelly should enjoy Vic Muniz’s Double Mona Lisa, After Warhol (which may actually infringe on Andy Warhol’s copyright), and the YouTube video How to Make a PB & J Sandwich God of War Style is a must-see for peanut butter lovers everywhere.
I am a commercial litigator and intellectual property lawyer in Orange County. Although my practice encompasses a wide variety of business disputes, I have a particular fondness for, and am prone to wax philosophical on, the subjects of copyright and trademark infringement in music, literature, art, and film.