The case involving the flavor-fight was New York Pizzeria Inc. v Syal, in which the subject matter near-and-dear to many New Yorkers' hearts (i.e. arteries), pizza, was disputed. New York Pizzeria, a franchising company for pizzerias, brought this lawsuit against their former employee, Adrian Hembree (although against his alleged co-conspirator, Ravinder Syal), who had acted as the company's Vice-President and as a franchisee in its restaurant business. Mr. Hembree's term of employment was ended, and he subsequently went on to found a competing chain of restaurants; Gina's Italian Kitchen. Mr. Hembree had brought a lawsuit against NYPI for an alleged breach of his termination agreement, after which NYPI took on Mr. Hembree for alleged acquisition and transference of internal documents and recipes to Gina's in order to create a knock-off restaurant. Further, NYPI asserted that Mr. Hembree had gained access to NYPI's internal network through another franchisee's account, passing the details onto Mr. Syal, who then downloaded internal documents from said network. The case discussed the matter quite broadly, as many different counts were alleged by NYPI, of which only a few relate to the question posed above.
The beef of the intellectual property argument by NYPI is brought under 15 USC section 1125, as NYPI claim that the defendant infringed its trademark in the flavor of its food, and the trade dress of its goods as to the food's plating. Should a flavor be considered a possible trademark, under section 1125 Mr. Syal could face a civil action for the infringement of that trademark or its possible dilution.
|Great flavors can lead to unpleasant results, no matter how delicious|
The final nail in the coffin of flavor trademarks is the inability to trademark something which is purely functional. Functionality was seen in Qualitex, to encompass "...[which] is essential to the use or purpose of the article or if it affects the cost or quality of the article,' that is, if exclusive use of the feature would put competitors at a significant non-reputation-related disadvantage". Limiting the usability of flavor combinations, especially iconic ones such as pizza sauce, would clearly hinder competition, or even extinguish it entirely within the field of pizza making. As said, this was put to rest in Re N.V. Organon, where the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board saw that "[flavoring] performs a utilitarian function that cannot be monopolized without hindering competition". In the end Justice Costa dismissed the argument of flavor trademarks.
Justice Costa didn't discuss the plating issue in much depth, as arguing a specific plating as trade dress is very unorthodox, but entertained the thought nonetheless. NYPI claimed that its plating of its baked ziti, eggplant Parmesan and chicken Parmesan carried a distinctive look, warranting protection. NYPI failed to express what they were protecting in the plating of the dishes, and how they were infringed, failing their argument quite early on: "[i]n the trade dress context, a plaintiff must articulate the elements that comprise its protected trade dress in order for the court to evaluate the plausibility of its claim". In the end, as said above, the claim failed due to a lack of demonstration on NYPI's part, but Justice Costa thought the argument could have warranted more discussion: "...NYPI knows how it plates its food, and it could have easily identified what is distinctive about the plating that might warrant trade dress protection".
Similar views have been expressed here in the UK, with an application for a "Taste of Artificial Strawberries" failing to pass the threshold of trademarkability due to its lack of distinctiveness. This echoes US precedent, and arguably would be the right decision in light of the law and public interest in the non-restriction of flavors in the marketplace. In this writer's opinion the future of flavor trademarks seems very grim, but as a connoisseur of all things culinary, I am quite glad that the world of food isn't shackled by commercial interests; at least not unduly.