Coffee sleeves, cup sleeves or also called coffee collars are corrugated often brown colored cardboard sleeves wrapped around a coffee or tea cup to isolate your hand from the hot liquid inside of your togo beverage. The only function is to keep your hands from getting burned. These definitely useful sleeves apparently embody such a great invention that the 1993 first filed patent has received more than 81 patent cites up until today. IP-Vision illustrates the patent landscape map of the LBP Manufacturing owned patent, which gave me the impression of a “coffee sleeve patent thicket”. Is the patent system gone crazy?
The first thing I think of in the morning is a good coffee. Since I am living in New York, my daily routine was getting a nice latte to go in one of the numerous coffee shops on my way to work. As everyone else, I always take one of the cardboard sleeves to protect my hands from the hot coffee. One day I happened to see that there were two patent numbers on the sleeve of my extra hot-no fat-venti-latte:
“Starbucks Coffee Company. All rights reserved. U.S. Patent no. 5,205,473 and no. 6,863,644 and related foreign patents pending.”
Two filed patents and one pending patent just for the invention of a “primitive” cardboard sleeve? From then on I collected coffee sleeves of all NY coffee shops that I happened to try…and believe me there were many! The sleeves always stated US patent numbers, or that there are patents pending. One morning when crossing 7th Avenue to Bleecker Street I ran into Patrick Dempsey the Hollywood actor. After rejoicing to see the first celebrity since I am here, Patrick made me think of a very poor movie that I happened to see as an in-flight movie several years ago. In that movie (Made of Honor) Patrick Dempsey plays a guy who invents the so called “coffee collar”. It really has nothing to do with the main plot, which is about a stupid love story. But even though the film character is fictive it made me look deeper into all these “coffee collar patents”.
Research on Espacenet (EPOs worldwide patent search service) revealed that since 1993 (the prior art patent: US 5,205,473) numerous companies filed patents for coffee cup holders, beverage container holder, protective sleeves, multi-layer heat isolating layers and so on and so forth. All these patents provide a quite comprehensive description of the invention with detailed pictures and drawings. I later learned that these patents should make available a so called “constructive notice”. Reading the patent number on a sleeve apparently gives you the ability to look up the patent and study the technology described. Understanding that corrugated cardboard somehow isolates the heat and thus protects my hands is, in the case of the coffee sleeve, comparably easy. By printing the patent number on coffee sleeves, companies are able to sue infringers and make them liable since they have noticed the patent exists beforehand. Otherwise infringers might face a limited recover of damages that accrued prior to the lawsuit.
I do understand why the constructive notice is important to companies but I still wonder why these coffee sleeves are being seen as an invention, where such a high number of patents can be filed for? Do we really need to protect these minor inventions? Do we really want to support companies’ investment in new coffee sleeve inventions?