5 Multi-Million Dollar Inventions (Nobody Really Owns)
Without copyright, trademarks, and patents, anyone's claims of having invented anything would be as dubious as that one guy's Canadian girlfriend who's been living off the land in the Yukon for the last three years. But not every idea worth a dime is as ferociously guarded by intellectual property goblins (i.e. lawyers) as you might believe. In fact, some of the most inescapably famous things out there actually belong to everyone. (Or no one, we guess?)
Legally Speaking, Emojis Qualify As The Alphabet
Emojis have become a valuable way of saying how we feel without the hassle of, y'know, saying it. More importantly, they've become their own little pop culture phenomenon, spawning toys, apparel, and even a movie -- the only film inspired by language after that Alphabetti Spaghetti erotic thriller fell through. But unlike almost any other giant franchise, any random person is allowed to get in on the emoji action. That's because emojis are (sigh) part of the very foundation of modern language.
Yup, emojis are part of the alphabet -- just not the one we're taught at school. The alphabet in question is Unicode, the industry standard of how computers represent text. It basically contains every symbol we've scribbled down from the dawn of man until now, from the letter "A" to "winky faces" to whatever the hell that pile of poop is smiling about. And fortunately for those who like walking around in T-shirts with smiling turds on them, you can't own an emoji any more than you can own a letter -- were that the case, Apple would've added a little (TM) to every character in its name by now.
However, the same doesn't apply to fonts, or how the Unicode looks. A font is a design, meaning it can be copyrighted. (Yes, that technically makes whoever came up with Comic Sans an artist, but let's try not to dwell on that.) Whenever you're sent an emoji, you typically receive it transformed into the default style of your software. You may get sent this:
But from the sender's perspective, they may have sent you one of these:
Which might greatly affect your self-esteem if you're a dude and this was a sext.
So if you want to use an emoji for any commercial purposes, make sure it looks slightly different than the ones guarded by Facebook's many, many lawyers. Otherwise you'll be Pointing Up emoji Smiling Poo emoji National Park emoji No Entry emoji Ping Pong emoji.
The Woman Who Came Up With The Fidget Spinner Didn't Become A Billionaire
Fidget spinners are the latest in a long tradition -- dating all the way back to the Slinky and the Drinking Bird -- of toy makers exploiting the fact that we're all still medieval peasants who gasp at the most basic display of physics. By the time you read this, another fad has probably taken their place ("Hey kids, it's the entropy yo-yo!"), but surely at least some inventor got a Porsche out of them, right? Nope, fidget spinners remain patent-free, because it seems no one thought kids would be dumb enough to like them.
Behind the fidget spinner is a classic sad tale of an unlucky inventor making a mistake and losing a fortune. Maybe. No one's really sure whose mind spawned these blasted things, but we do know of someone who invented a very similar type of doohickey: Florida native Catherine Hettinger. Inspired by stories of kids in Israel throwing rocks at cops and passersby, Hettinger created her imaginatively named "spinning toy" to finally give children a release that does not involving beaning strangers with chunks of mineral. Here's the prototype:
"I call it the Outrageous Tubular Party Nipple (For Kids)."
Anyone who has met a preteen in the last six months might know that that mini UFO doesn't quite look like the shape of the childproofed throwing stars that are contemporary fidget spinners. However, surely that's close enough for at least a few mildly lucrative out-of-court settlements. That is, if Hettinger still owned her invention. After successfully selling her spinning toy at arts and crafts markets across Florida (no small feat for a product not fashioned out of alligator teeth), Hettinger started suspecting she finally had a hit on her hands. Her dreams were crushed, however, when Hasbro passed on producing the toy. Crestfallen, Hettinger finally let her patent lapse in 2005, no longer able to afford to pay the $400 fee for something that would obviously never take off.
But then came 2017, the year that logic died and the spinner finally had its day, much to Hettinger's lack of gain. At least she can take some solace in how her invention would have never made her rich anyway. Even if she had stuck to her patents, it would have expired in 2014 -- so long ago that some of the people making fidget spinners today weren't even born.
The Thermos Popularized Itself To Death
What do aspirin, heroin, dry ice, kerosene, and trampolines have in common, besides making for a memorable night out? They've all been the victims of genericide, which oddly isn't the proper wordage for a really bland mass killing. In the past, companies often aspired to have their brand name become synonymous with the product itself, figuring that everyone saying their name over and over counts as free advertising. What they often didn't realize was that by doing so, they ran the risk of losing their brand's trademark, allowing anyone to market the product under that name. It's like how Otis Elevator Co. ruined their name when everyone started calling their invention elevators instead of the original term, up-and-down coffins .
The perfect example of this kind of marketing hubris came from the King-Seeley Thermos Company. The company, which had cornered the slightly metallic-tasting hot beverages market, decided not only to bank on their market share, but to also actively advertise it. In its marketing, King-Seeley barely mentioned that it sold vacuum flasks (the proper term for their product). That's because it sold something far better: the Thermos.
You can read more about these companies by visiting their official Crackeds.
However, after 50 years of aggressive advertising, King-Seeley's branding finally overtook its greed. In 1958, a company named Aladdin Industries (ironically named after a thief famous for letting things out of bottles) started selling its own vacuum flasks as "thermos bottles." King-Seeley quickly sued Aladdin for infringement, only to be told by the U.S. courts that it no longer owned its own name. Despite King-Seeley's trademark (and even hounding dictionary writers to keep its name out), the judge deemed that the thermos was "so firmly impressed as a part of the everyday language of the American public" that it had become part of the public domain. (As a booby prize, the company did keep exclusive usage of the capitalized Thermos.)
Anybody (And Everybody) Cashed In On The Pog Craze
Back in the 1990s, Pogs were the dumbass kids' fad du jour, but the craze did have something many of its predecessors didn't: ad space. And paradoxically, that's precisely what ended up losing Pogs' rightful owners a whole lot of money.
The origin of Pogs (best described as jacks, but more boring) is somewhat contested, but the origin of the name isn't. It comes from the Haleakala Dairy of Maui, Hawaii, which sold a bottled drink made of passion fruit, orange, and guava -- conveniently called POG ("GOP" was already taken). As the legend goes, bored workers would play with the cardboard bottle caps carrying the distinctive Pog logo. Eventually it became a favorite pastime for Hawaiian kids, who had little other entertainment going on in their tropical island paradise.
A rival drink made from apple, strawberry, and starfruit wasn't as popular.
In the early '90s, the game and its distinctive caps started becoming fashionable on the mainland. Then, suddenly Pogs were chosen by the fickle hand of cosmic fate to be a kids' toy fad, turning these crappy cardboard circles into a multi-million-dollar industry almost overnight. World Pog Federation, the wrestling-sounding company which had bought the trademarked name off Haleakala, fought hard to remain the only ones allowed to use the Pog name for years (a somewhat weird move when half of your demographic hasn't learned how to read yet).
But the game's success went to their heads. Other companies realized that Pogs could serve as tiny billboards clutched in the hands of the most impressionable of all demographics. WPF gladly took all comers, letting its product be emblazoned with every kid's favorite things: McDonald's arches, Marvel characters, the Pope, and many, many other brands. And that was WPF's mistake -- by letting the big boys put their name on the product, the Pog brand itself became pretty much worthless.
Then everyone started making their own brand of generic cardboard circles. Unlike knockoff Barbies, with their cheap flammable hair and weirdly uneven boobs, Pog discs could be made by anyone with a printer and a pair of scissors. While the WPF managed to hang on to the noble Pog name, it couldn't stop the massive outpouring of off-brand Pogs into the market. Fortunately for them, Pogs stayed relevant nowhere near long enough for any of that to matter. Fortunately for us, it was long enough for it to become really embarrassing:
This set is still missing the elusive "real killers" piece.
If You Invent A Hot New Recipe, Take That Shit To The Grave
When a chef creates a new recipe, it is their job to keep it from the prying eyes of the public and other chefs. That's because recipes are not protected by copyright, as they are "mere listings of ingredients" -- another reason U.S. Copyright Office workers aren't great at dinner parties. Unlike music, art, or literature, you can't create food. Only God and very powerful warlocks can do that.
With the advent of food blogs, what some call food plagiarism has become quite rampant. Moments after some chef becomes a foodie sensation by figuring out that peaches go great with Hungarian barbecue ribs, another food place will have paid "homage" to their signature dish, like they're the Quentin Tarantino of dead pigs. Sure, for the original cronut, you have to go to Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York City. But for one that tastes exactly the same, you only have to go to any other bakery that has croissant dough and a deep fat fryer.
This is why big food names like Coca-Cola and KFC go to ridiculous lengths to safeguard their specific recipes. The liquor industry once had a similar situation, with stoic bartenders guarding their cocktail recipes with their lives. However, their trade secrets have been all but wiped out due to "brand ambassadors" -- C-grade mixologists hired by big brands to push their booze by creating snazzy signature cocktails, but who usually wind up stealing or googling an existing drink and throwing some ginger in.
While most chefs don't mind food plagiarism (stolen hummus is the sincerest form of flattery), those who do have to get creative in their pursuit of justice. In the delicious-sounding Two Pesos, Inc. v. Taco Cabana, Inc. case, Taco Cabana successfully bankrupted its rivals not for stealing its menu, but for foolishly copying its restaurants' style as well. Meanwhile, food blogger / self-described "sugar hero" Elizabeth LaBau sued the Food Network for copying her snow globe cupcake...'s promotional how-to video. So you can get some legal rights for your food; you just have to point a camera at it while you're making it. We never realized "food porn" worked on so many levels.
Cedric Voets invented the listicle. It turned out it already existed, but he arrived at it independently. You can follow more of his insane ramblings on Twitter.
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