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Trademarks, Patents, Copyrights, and Cake & Brownie Mixes


I bet you have seen (or at least heard) the Pillsbury doughboy. According to the Pillsbury website “[t]he Pillsbury Doughboy was “born” on November 7, 1965, and stands 8.75” tall (including his hat!). You probably know him best by his signature ‘hoo hoo!’”


A few years ago, a small bakery by the name of “My Dough Girl” got a call from Pillsbury (or really General Mills, who owns Pillsbury) because of a trademark dispute. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, “A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.”


Pillsbury was concerned that the name “My Dough Girl” was too similar to the Doughboy and people may mistake the small bakery as being associated with Pillsbury. The small bakery had to change its name. (article from NBC News)


Is that fair to “My Dough Girl” that it had to change its name? Well it seems pretty fair to me. Pillsbury spends a lot of money maintaining the quality of their products. If there was no protection on Pillsbury, then another firm could come in and use their logo, sell products under their name, and free-ride off of the fact that people associate the logo with high-quality products. Now, this probably is not a problem if “My Dough Girl” is delicious. But, what if it is not? Or, worse, this small bakery could have some health violations or poor quality products. “My Dough Girl” could diminish the perceived quality (and therefore demand) for Pillsbury products.


Many companies have trademarks. Like the Pillsbury doughboy, Betty Crocker has a trademark red spoon, which according to their website “it’s a symbol of the quality associated with Betty Crocker.” The Duncan Hines logo on your favorite cake mix box is also trademarked.


There are a number of ways that firms can gain some market power, legally, through protection from the government. One of them is trademarks. Another is a patent. A patent issued by the government guarantees that no one else can produce the same product.


You all have probably made, or at least eaten, a cake made using a box mix. Usually you have to just add water, butter or oil, and eggs. And they are quite delicious. My favorite is the Butter Recipe Golden flavor, but I know plenty of people who swear by Funfetti. Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines, and Pillsbury all started selling cake mixes in the late 1940s and 1950s, but the first patent for a cake mix was submitted by P. Duff and Sons in 1930 and issued in 1933. This mix called for the addition of just water to make a cake. In 1935, a new one was issued which included a mix which required the addition of eggs rather than just water. Here is a fun story by Bon Appetit which walks through the history and debunks some myths about the development of cake mixes and another one by Tasting Table.


Similar to the trademark, the patent is important to protect companies from free-riders. The Duff company mentioned above spent time and money researching the development of the cake mix. By applying for a patent, no one else can use their formula to make and sell a cake mix. In more economics terms, patents incentivize firms to invent because it gives them monopoly power to produce that good without someone stealing it.


What about a copyright? A copyright says that someone cannot rewrite the words that you write. Example: a book, a poem, a song. What about a recipe? Recipes are actually not (for the most part) copyrightable. Here is a nice little article about it: Is that fair? Someone could spend a great deal of time coming up with recipes and writing a cookbook. If you read the previous article, it explains that you cannot copy specific phrasing other than the listing of ingredients or basic instructions. You also cannot use someone else’s photos without permission. So, if you write a cookbook, no one else can publish it. Phew. And if you write a blog post, someone can use your recipe but they can’t use the story or photos that go with it. Hopefully if they use your recipe they tell everyone else about it, so then you get more people following you!


So while monopolies are often given a bad rap, there are good economic reasons to help protect firms with trademarks, patents, or copyrights and give them a little monopoly power. It helps encourage innovation and protect others from free-riding off of other firms.


Pretty Please Brownies with Cherries on Top


In graduate school, I decided to enter the Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest, which you’ll note also has a Registered Tradmark (as indicated by the ®). The Bake-off has apparently been going on since 1949, but I had just recently heard about it. I spent a couple of months testing out recipes and names for the dessert. To be honest, I was pretty proud of what I came up with. While rich, it is a delicious and easy dessert. Further, it uses multiple Pillsbury products. Alas, I did not win. I wasn’t even invited to the actual Bake-off. Sigh….


In good news, I’m sharing a variation of my recipe with you below!


Brownie

Brownie Mix – any kind should do (Pillsbury, Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker, Ghiradelli, …)

Eggs, water, and vegetable oil as directed on box of brownie mix.

1 tsp. almond extract

1 cup chocolate chips


Icing

1 cup powdered sugar

2 Tbsp. milk

1 tsp. almond extract


Topping

Cherry Preserves


Directions:

Prepare brownies as instructed on the box. If there is an option for fudge brownies or cake brownies, follow the instructions for fudge brownies.


Stir in 1 tsp. almond extract and chocolate chips to the brownie batter. If your brownie mix already has chocolate chips in it, you can reduce to ½ cup chocolate chips or skip altogether.


Pour brownie mix into a greased 9-inch pie pan. The presentation works best if you put parchment paper on the bottom so that the brownie comes off cleanly. Bake as instructed on the brownie box.


Meanwhile, make the icing: Stir together the sugar, milk, and almond extract. Set aside.

Once brownies are done, remove from the oven and let cool for about 20 minutes. Flip brownie onto serving dish and pour icing on top. It is ok, and even preferred, if your brownies are still warm and the icing seeps into the brownie.


When you are ready to serve the dessert, spread cherry preserves over the top of the brownie.


Best served in thin slices (it’s VERY rich), and if you are feeling special, add some vanilla ice cream on the side.