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November 30, 2000

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NOVEMBER 19, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 46

The Hot Topic of Patents
Now - the Japanese curry, pizza and hot dog
By MICHELE ZACK Los Angeles

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Who invented curry? The fiery dish is mainly synonymous with India, but a controversy is now building up over two Japanese businessmen who have shoved culinary history aside and lodged a patent application claiming they are the true inventors. "Patent buccaneers" and "bio-pirates" are two of the more polite reactions from Indians to the audacious bid for fame and riches by entrepreneurs Hirayama Makoto and Ohashi Sachiyo.

Their claim, titled "Cooking of Curry" (file number JP7289214), was made under an application by House Foods Corp., one of Japan's top food and drink companies. It says: "The cooking of curry is carried out by mixing ingredients such as onion, potato, carrot and meat . . . with water . . . extracted spices at least containing the extract of turmeric, cumin and coriander, heating over a slow fire for 10-20 minutes after boiling, adding wheat flour roux and curry powder or adding curry roux and heating until the mixture becomes viscous."

As cheeky as they may appear to be, the people at House Foods are not the only ones jumping on Japan's love affair with the curry. On the European Patent Office's worldwide patent list are dozens of other Japanese applications, from curry yogurt and curry-sprinkled rice to low-fat curry sauce, hamburger curry, instant curry, curry soup and curry crackers. Not content with getting Indians hot under the collar, the Japanese have also taken aim at Italy.

More than 80 Japanese firms claim to have come up with either the pizza or its cooking process - for example, patent number JP8116934. Aided by a diagram with numbered parts, "inventor" Komiya Michinobu says: "This pizza is constituted by forming a part coated with a pizza sauce and an uncoated part 4a on the surface of a required pizza dough 1, baking the resultant dough so as to puff the uncoated part 4a upward. The resultant pizza is capable of not only remarkably manifesting a voluminous feeling but also enriching decorativeness, elegance . . ." Lousy prose, but you get the point. Taira Yoshinobu's hot dog (JP9019275) is so simple, you wonder why no one in the U.S. ever thought of shoving a sausage in a bread roll before he claims to have come up with the idea in 1997. His application begins: "Food ingredient 3 is inserted into a food ingredient-housing cylindrical part 2 . . ."

About 400,000 patent applications are filed in Japan every year, 30% of which are successful. The phenomenon is a large and growing headache for the Japan Patent Office, which clearly needs more guidelines. It says: "One cause of these problems is that Japan has not established methods to appropriately evaluate intellectual property." Globally, the issue is regulated by the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement, which gives exclusive rights for 20 years to patent-holders. On products it rules: "The exclusive rights conferred will prevent others from the acts of making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing for these purposes that product." On processes: "The exclusive rights conferred will prevent others from the act of using the process, and from the acts of using, offering for sale, selling or importing for these purposes at least the product obtained directly by that process."

Behind the legalese is a clear message - that anyone who secures a patent for, say, fish-head curry will have the right to assign the patent, draw up licensing contracts . . . and get rich. There are exceptions, usually limiting rights to certain countries only. The World Trade Organization has the question of patents on its agenda for its Seattle conference Nov. 30. Judging by what's happening in Japan, it should produce some heated exchanges.

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