The Vegas Strip Steak Patent

(Photo: Artizone)

We’ve noted before on this blog that food receives limited protection from copying. But that doesn’t mean it receives no protection. As we all know, Coca-Cola’s secret formula is still secret. And sometimes food companies patent novel (and not so novel) dishes and techniques.

Patent and “trade secret” (the legal right Coke relies on) present very different economic benefits, however. Trade secret is forever—if the secret can be kept secret. Patent, by contrast, lasts 20 years and protects the invention against any copyist. More importantly, patent is fundamentally based on disclosure: to patent something, you have to explain how it works.

How do firms choose between the two? That’s a big question. But we can get a window on it by looking at something that has been in the news lately—the so-called  “Vegas Strip Steak.”

According to Oklahoma State University, which is claiming the patent, the Vegas Strip Steak is very similar to the New York strip.  The OSU folks are keeping quiet about the precise location of the Vegas Strip Steak – at least until their patent is granted. Which, if the United States Patent and Trademark Office does its job, probably won’t ever happen.

Why?  There’s no way OSU could patent the steak itself. The steak is just a piece of a cow. It is, in other words, a product of nature, which cannot be patented. 

Wisely, OSU’s patent apparently isn’t on the steak itself, but on the knife cuts necessary to extract the steak.  But that approach is dubious as well.  Once you know where the steak is, the cuts necessary to get at it may be obvious to a skilled butcher. Things that are obvious cannot be patented.  

If OSU probably shouldn’t get a patent on the Vegas Strip, can it emulate Coke and use trade secret?  That isn’t too likely either.  People have been eating cows for many thousands of years, and we know the animal pretty well.  If the OSU folks have indeed identified a piece of meat that was previously undervalued, people who know bovine anatomy will probably have a pretty good idea of where in the animal to look once they’ve seen the steak.  And even if somehow the location of the Vegas strip is harder to find than we think it is, the secret will probably get out soon after OSU teaches a slaughterhouse how to extract the steak – someone will talk. 

There is, of course, Coke’s great counterexample Coke discloses its formula only to a few top executives, and it takes extraordinary measures to keep the recipe secret.  So maybe OSU could also exert strict control over their “recipe” for extracting Vegas strips.  To do so, they’d probably have to build their own slaughterhouses, hire just a small number of people to produce the steaks, pay them really well to keep quiet, and bind them to contracts that attempt to punish them if they do not. 

The economics of this strategy are hard to see, which is probably why OSU is not pursuing it. That leaves one last possibility.

OSU’s best strategy is probably to claim a trademark in “Vegas Strip”. That way, even if other producers can sell the same cut of meat, they can’t use the same name for it.  And in a world where many if not most consumers have no idea which part of the cow their steak comes from, the “Vegas Strip” trademark may be very valuable.  If consumers associate a great taste with the “Vegas Strip” name, they’ll pay more for OSU’s steak.  And that can help it to beat its competitors even if other producers are allowed to market the same cut of meat.

All of which shows that, as far as IP goes, there is more than one way to skin a cow.

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  1. Mike says:

    You of course realize that This American Life broadcast the Coke formula secret, right?

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/427/original-recipe

    People really need to find a new example as the Coke thing is more hype/marketing than it is a good example of a trade secret.

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    • Anonymous Coward says:

      No, they didn’t. Coke claims it’s not the recipe. And in any event, even if it is, at best it’s a very old version of it — not the current formula, which Coke has long admitted has changed over the years.

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  2. frankenduf says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • YX says:

      Not exactly same thing…
      Gene patent is about how you obtain and manipulate a particular gene, not patent the gene itself. It’s actually very similar to the VS cut, in that you can’t patent the steak itself, but can attempt to patent the cut (if the cut is not obvious, which obtain gene surely is not).

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  3. Paul says:

    OSU has applied for the trademark. Application Serial No. 85593423.

    Word Mark: VEGAS STRIP STEAK
    Goods and Services: IC 029. US 046. G & S: Beef

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  4. Eric M. Jones says:

    Am I the only one who remembers that two years ago a similar announcement was made that two more beef steaks were found?

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  5. JohnnyPeps says:

    Not exactly the most appetizing name. When I eat, I try to avoid thinking about corporations trying to take my money, smokers in wheelchairs with bottled oxygen and diseased prostitutes.

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  6. johnjac says:

    Or this was all a publicity stunt. How much press has this gotten?

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  7. Michael Haisma says:

    The city of Las Vegas might take exception to OSU trying to trademark the name of their landmark.

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  8. Cyrus says:

    The writer claims that “things that are obvious cannot be patented…”

    This is true only so far as the item has already become obvious.

    These folks seem to have truly come up with a new form of a cut of steak, which in my view ought to be protected under the law.

    Cyrus Johnson Esq
    Open Source America
    http://opensourceamerica.typepad.com/

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