“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,” sings Maria von Trapp to her future step-children in The Sound of Music. It’s a lovely song whether performed by Trane or Tony Bennett, and one we now somewhat inexplicably associate with Christmas.
There’s a problem, though. At the end of the movie, the melodious Von Trapps flee over the Alps and wind up in America (at least, the real ones did). Liquid precipitation and vibrissae might be very nice in interwar Austria, Georg and Maria, but here in the States we have a strong intellectual property regime. Who owns the patents over the things in My Favorite Things?
I endeavored to learn.
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Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Well, natural phenomena can’t be patented, so that light April drizzle is right out. And as of a Supreme Court decision from last June, “naturally occurring genes” can’t be patented either, so there’s little hope for holding exclusive rights on those kittens.
But there’s hope for Trapp-loving patent owners. GMO plants and animals very much can be patented, so if those flowers or felines are genetically modified, they’re fair-game. And in fact the literature is filled with rose hybrids, engineered in lab or garden. Here’s a “new and distinct variety” derived from “the everblooming pillar rose” in 1960.
And while the rain can’t be patented, artificial rain-making machines can. In the 1950s, someone filed for rights to a “method and apparatus for making artificial rain,” and the literature is filled with examples since.
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Copper kettles are probably as old as the Bronze Age, and thus predate the imposition of modern intellectual-property legal frameworks. However. This 1881 American patent for a “heat-conducting vessel” calls for copper plating. And a 2012 Chinese patent perhaps fits our ends better: It is titled, simply, “copper kettle.”
“The copper kettle is reasonable in structural design, easy to hold, convenient to sue, firm, durable and beautiful,” it says. A favorite thing, surely.
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
Brown paper comes in many shapes and sizes, and many patents (like this one) concern its manufacture rather than it. Besides, the loveliest part here are the strings—which, I believe at least, are specifically twine. So the relevant patent here is this 1929 filing for the twine dispenser package, an elegant and very usable piece of early 20th-century industrial design.
Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels
They’re biological, so we know the rap with ponies. Those apple pastries, though: Can they be patented? The U.S. Patent Office in fact devotes a whole web page to the matter: “Can Recipes Be Patented?”
Usually no, it cautions—“people have been mixing together ingredients to produce different food products since the dawn of humanity”—but then it disclaims:
There are exceptions in which the combination of ingredients used, or the way they are processed, results in a food product totally unexpected. That’s something that may be patentable. Numerous patents on food products are issued each year. However, if you take a look at most of these patents, you’ll find that the recipe was more likely to have been created in a laboratory than on a kitchen counter.
Aha! Hope. And the patent record bears this out: “Fruit filler for pastry products and process for its preparation” discusses how to whip up strudel filling at an industrial scale, using “critical proportions of apple powder,” “prepared in the absence of heat.” There’s also a 2005 patent, still in effect, for “flavored fruit segments and methods of making the same.” Yum!
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
There’s a profusion of natural phenomena here, so let’s go with something related: “microbial spray for animal waste” from 2002. It brags that it will combat the “numerous sources of excreta not controllable by pooper scooper regulations abound,” which include “problems created by Canadian geese on golf courses.” Someone has to clean up after all those wild geese.
Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
As it happens, these are interesting times for fashion-related patents.
“Most judges have found that fashion exists somewhere between patent and copyright and as a result, the design of a piece of clothing cannot be protected in the way that the trademark on the clothing’s tag can be,” writes Jennifer Mann at Michigan State’s intellectual-property-focused blog. But as BuzzFeed wrote in July, Lululemon now holds 31 design patents and is suing other clothes companies who it believes infringe them.
These patents tend to be for garb like “tank top” and “jacket”—not exactly the stuff of Liesl’s modest dress. So let’s instead go with this “sash holder,” from the 1880s, which was invented by a man named Montgomery Blue.
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
Sure, there’s an artificial snow machine, but does it really make memories so indelible we fondly recall our frigid facial features? I doubt it. So perhaps these final lines should serve as a reminder to enjoy the natural world. Mother Nature, after all, can never infringe herself.