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Holiday Horror Series: Part 1- Could You Patent Christmas?!

November 23 2016

By Audrey A. Millemann

The holidays are upon us.  Given that everything seems to be protected by intellectual property rights, could someone protect Christmas?

The most likely candidate to try to patent Christmas would be Santa Claus.  But (assuming all other issues are addressed), could Santa Claus really patent Christmas? Assuming that Santa Claus invented Christmas, then perhaps he could! U.S. patent law provides patent protection for pretty much everything. Under the patent laws of the U.S. and most foreign countries, the first person to invent something may file a patent application seeking a patent for that invention. Unlike most foreign countries, however, U.S. law provides a one-year grace period in which a patent application can be filed after certain types of public disclosures by the inventor.

So, maybe Santa Claus could file a patent application in the U.S. if he was the first to invent something that has not been publicly disclosed in the last year.  Of course, there may be no one else claiming to have invented Christmas, so it might not be much of a problem. And, because Santa has been operating in secret for hundreds of years, there cannot have been any public disclosures.

Santa might even be able to patent the method he uses to deliver gifts to every child all around the world on Christmas Eve.  His method might be treated as a business method, which could make it more difficult to patent, even though it is not really a “business.”

What other kinds of Christmas inventions could someone patent?  The United States Patent and Trademark Office lists over 980 U.S. patents with the word “Christmas” in the title.  These patents cover items like Christmas lights, decorations, Christmas tree stands and turntables, antler apparatus, Christmas tree watering devices, fire extinguishers, and many other things.  My personal favorite is the “Apparatus to Prevent Pets Climbing a Christmas Tree.”  The need for this invention is obvious if you have ever had kittens or cats around your Christmas tree.  The patent states: “as is generally well known in the prior art, pets, such as cats, like to climb up the branches of a Christmas tree. Oftentimes this will result in knocking some of the ornaments off such tree.  These ornaments may be broken…”  The invention is basically a giant circular screen that clips under the lowest branches of the tree. Based on my experience, however, this device will have precisely the opposite of its intended effect. Any cat who sees the screen will climb up or jump onto it.  And, anyway, who really wants to stop cats from climbing Christmas trees?!  It’s too much fun to watch them perched on the branches and swatting ornaments (and to see their embarrassed looks when they land clumsily on the floor)!

What about a new type of Christmas tree?  Trees (and all plants) are patentable, as long as they are new and developed by humans, not discovered in nature.  In fact, a flying reindeer would be patentable (if it was created by humans), as living organisms can be patented.

How about a new nose for Rudolph — one that allows Santa to turn it on remotely from the sleigh?  The nose could be patentable, as could the software that runs it.

New designs for Christmas stockings and ornaments?  The designs for these objects (separate from the objects themselves) are patentable as design patents.  A design patent offers less protection than a utility patent and has a shorter lifespan, but it does protect against designs that are substantially the same as the patented design.

Maybe Santa could protect signature laugh (“Ho, Ho, Ho!”) or his red suit.  The phrase could be trademarked, just as business names and logos, as long as Santa uses it in commerce and was the first to use it.  The red suit might be protectable as a trademark or possibly as trade dress, or more likely as a design patent.  Unlike a patent that expires, however, a trademark has the advantage of lasting indefinitely.

What about your favorite Christmas carol?  The traditional carols are now in the public domain and belong to everyone, but any new song (lyrics and music) is protected by copyright as soon as it is created.  Unlike a trademark, copyright protection only lasts for the life of the author plus a specific number of years.

How about Christmas cookies?  Or that special eggnog recipe? Recipes can be protected and are usually best protected as trade secrets, provided that they are not easily reverse-engineered.  (Think how long Coca-Cola has been around, and it’s still a secret.)

Of course, the most important thing about Christmas is not what can be protected under the law, but the spirit of giving and sharing the holidays bring.  So, have a wonderful holiday season and may the New Year be filled with peace and joy!

 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Holiday Horror Series on December 2nd.