When H.J. Heinz unveiled its new “Dip & Squeeze” ketchup container—part dipping cup and part squeeze packet—Scott White was stunned. Four years earlier, White, who works for the Chicago Housing Authority and is a part-time inventor, says he visited Heinz and shared his own condiment concept he calls the CondiCup, which he wisely patented. Now the CondiCup looks nothing like Dip & Squeeze, but there are aspects that are similar—the option to dip into the ketchup or spread it like the traditional packet. As such, White is suing Heinz.
But can you claim a patent violation over a partial resemblance as opposed to an idential rip-off? Must Heinz prove the alleged meeting with White had no bearing on its own R&D, which had been working on Dip & Squeeze for years? For a layout of the controversy, read Julie Jargon’s report in the Wall Street Journal.
Jargon (what a name!) also notes how other companies engage in “open innovation,” allowing input from outsiders while at the same time providing legal protections for itself. For instance, Jargon writes,
Kraft encourages people who have ideas to protect them by filing for patents before submitting them to the company. So far, the food maker has worked only with other manufacturers to develop new ideas, through licensing and joint development agreements rather than with individual inventors, a spokesman says. If someone submits an idea that isn’t already protected and Kraft adopts it, the company states that it may grant the inventor an award that won’t exceed $5,000.
I need to keep this in mind when I develop the auto-scope—a periscope for cars that allows you to look way ahead in traffic to figure out, say, if the lane next to you is blocked.