On the lighter side of the law, the news has recently covered a couple of very strange examples of intellectual property.
First, we head to Russia…
On April 16th, the International Herald Tribune told the tale of a Russian man who has trademarked a particular style of beard. This man, one I.V. Pugach, states on his website that this style of beard – which consists of a goatee and mustache with no sideburns, worn either long or short – is a peculiarly Russian style. Pugach goes so far as to say that this beard is a “racial attribute” of the Russian people, and that men of other nationalities who wear the beard are committing “genocide.” On the website, on of Pugach’s rants targets the late Muammar el-Qaddafi as one example of a non-Russian improperly wearing the beard, and chastizes President Barack Obama for not intervening in the matter.
While all of this may seem surreal, even humorous, Pugach is dead serious about it. He prevented Mikhail Verbitsky, a mathematician and popular blogger, from departing Russia on the grounds that he had not made payment on a court judgement against him. The judgment? That Verbitsky had committed libel when he described Pugach as a con man out to make money on idiots. However, Verbitsky had not been informed that he owed Pugach ten thousand dollars, and was detained at the airport as he attempted to leave the country. Currently, Verbitsky is fighting the verdict.
Is it even possible to trademark facial hair? According to Russian intellectual property law, it appears that you can. The licenses that Pugach is authorized to sell to individuals or organizations looking to use “his” style of beard cost about six hundred dollars a year for the average person, but popular actors would pay thirty thousand, and television channels would pay an astonishing four million dollar per year. If Pugach could successfully defend his trademark, he would be a very wealthy man. Under the current American definition of a trademark, it is unclear of Pugach would be able to make a legitimate claim of infringement against his facial hair (get it?). In America, a trademark serves to identify the exclusive source or origin of a commercial product or service. While common usage of the term often refers to a well known characteristic, this fails to capture the essential fact that a trademark is a business term.
Now that we’re back in America, let’s see how our own system can surprise us. Last week, the Wall Street Journal took a trip to Kraft Foods to watch Guillermo Haro, the “pasta architect” behind company’s famous macaroni and cheese. Haro is in charge of developing new pasta shapes in order to keep kids entertained and keep their parents attached to the Kraft brand. To date, Haro has received twenty nine patents for his pasta designs; in the twenty two years he has been at Kraft, he has come up with over two thousand shapes, but success is difficult to come by. The pasta must be recognizable before and after cooking, and must conform to certain basic structural limitations. All lines must interconnect, and the pasta may not be too thick or too thin.
Other competitors have also patented their unique pasta designs. Back in 1989, Kraft released a saxophone shaped macaroni noodle and quickly found that it had also ignited a war; spoiler patents on shapes like astronauts and vampires were filed by the long gone CPC. Today, Kraft is the industry leader in shaped pasta, and boasts an astonishing variety. Without question, these designs meet the patent criteria of new and non-obvious. But are they any more strange than a trademarked beard? That’s up for debate.