How do you protect your intellectual property? What is intellectual property? Is a special sandwich that you make better than anybody else intellectual property? Imagine you are the owner of a new restaurant who has created a new edible masterpiece. And subsequently, to your surprise, you discover that a copycat sandwich is being made across the street, without your permission.What do you do? What are your remedies?
I don’t think they can register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office and obtain a certificate of copyright. Can they file an application for patent registration of the sandwich structure?
Remember for something to be patentable subject matter it must be a new, useful and a non-obvious improvement over something that’s already out there. You don’t see too many patents on food recipes and sandwiches. Maybe a design patent (.PDF), but I doubt that will give them much protection.
It may be argued that the business conduct of Burger King in this instance is actionable under federal unfair competition provision of the Lanham Act. While the Lanham Act, in general, focuses primarily on obtaining, maintaining, and enforcing trademark and service mark rights, Section 43(a), allows for suits for false designation of origin. But I don’t think there is a false designation, Burger King comes right out and says we’re making our own version of this old sandwich.
And it’s not a copy of a trade secret (like the McDonald’s special sauce) so I don’t think there’s any grounds for McDonald’s to bring a suit. There is probably not much McDonald’s can do to stop Burger King from making their version of the egg McMuffin.
What is protectable is the brand name or the trademark. What Burger King is tacitly saying in this clever breakfast commercial is that, McDonald’s doesn’t own the rights to eggs, sausage, cheese or English muffins. McDonald’s owns the trademark “Egg McMuffin(.PDF).”
John DeVore, recently wrote a Special article to CNN entitled “Big burger boys burgle breakfast.” about the commercial showing how Burger King’s new BK Breakfast Muffin Sandwich’s is just a copy of the classic Sausage McMuffin.
But are McDonald’s executives upset with this campaign? Have lawyers been rallied and accusatory calls been made?”We haven’t received any direct feedback from competitors,” said Brian Gries, Burger King’s vice president of marketing impact. Gries further defends his company’s choice to be up-front about the similarities between the BK Breakfast Muffin and the McMuffin, saying, “We are not above taking a product that we know customers like and delivering it to our guests at a great price.”
I love the guile of Burger King making a full admission in the commercial that they are copying this sandwich. I would love to see the internal memos from the lawyers arguing about whether or not they should allow this commercial to air. It is not like McDonald’s has not been involved in a number of lawsuits involving trademark issues in the course of its history. But I think if McDonald’s brings a lawsuit in this instance it would fuel of a lot of bad press and they would have little chance of success.