The Eskimo Pie Patent Saga

Christian Kent Nelson experimented with many different recipes before he came up with the perfect chocolate coating for an ice cream bar, which became “I-Scream Bars” and later, the very popular Eskimo Pies. What sank the company he founded was the patent he applied for, which his advisors didn’t think would be granted because it was too broad. Yet it was granted in 1922.  

The difficulty of making the Eskimo Pie lay in the formula for the chocolate coating. So one would imagine that the patent would have described precise specifications for making that coating. Precise ratios of cocoa butter to chocolate, temperatures for heating and cooling, or the number of seconds to dip, for example.

The patent contains none of that. Running a scant page and a half of text, the patent merely describes “a core consisting of a block or brick of ice cream, of general rectangular configuration,” that is “sealed within a shell … of edible material which may be like that employed in coating chocolate candies, although preferably modified to harden at a lower temperature.” There is no description of how the coating’s composition or how it is to be “modified.”

Instead, the patent focuses on features that seem irrelevant or tangential to the actual inventive discovery. The “claims” of the patent are supposed to identify an invention’s key features. But instead the Eskimo Pie patent identifies embarrassingly obvious features: “normally liquid material frozen to a substantially solid state” (i.e., ice cream), an “edible, sustaining and form retaining casing” (i.e., hard chocolate), and a “bar-like contour” (i.e., shaped like a rectangle).

Winning a patent for simply chocolate-coated ice cream seemed like a bonanza at the time. But other companies came up with their own methods of coating ice cream with chocolate, and Nelson and his business partner Russell Stover (yes, that Russell Stover) spent more money fighting patent battles in court than they could make up with even phenomenal ice cream sales. The case serves as an example of what can go wrong when patents are granted for broad ideas instead of the invention itself. Read the entire story of the Eskimo Pie patent at Slate. -via Boing Boing

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