Why Didn’t Coca-Cola Patent Their Secret Recipe?

Understanding the Law of Patents and Considerations to Make For Your Product: Explained by Our Intellectual Property Lawyer in Philadelphia, PA

 Soft drinks have to be one of the most congested markets for any business selling a product.Titans like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and many other soft drink giants dominate the field. But none has the history or mystery quite like Coca-Cola. Invented in 1886 by John Pemberton, Coca-Cola enjoyed early life as a health tonic sold in pharmacies in Georgia. It enjoyed meteoric rise in 1899 when the bottling rights were sold to a company with factories throughout the United States and in many countries throughout the world. Despite this, Coca-Cola never patented their secret recipe, which has remained one of the most guarded secrets in the world for over a century.  

But why did the recipe never get patented? Our intellectual property lawyers at Paul & Paul explain why, which may surprise you at first if you do not understand patent law. However, the decisions by Coca-Cola are an excellent case study for other inventors and businesses who are considering whether to patent their invention.

How a Patent Works

Patents are issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) through an application process. This application process is a public filing intended to “put the world on notice” of your invention. There are several stringent requirements that an applicant must satisfy in order to obtain a patent. The patent serves as an intellectual property right to the patent holder, which could be licensed or sold to another individual or business. It can also be defended in court, meaning that a patent infringer could be responsible for damages to a patent holder.

However, the protections from a patent are not infinite. Generally, a patent only protects an invention for a period of 20 years (there are some rare exceptions that could extend this time period for pharmaceuticals during testing phases). At the end of the 20 years, anyone else may use, sell, or create the patented product. The original patent holder will have no rights to enforce at that time.

The Obvious Patent Dilemma for Coca-Cola

As you can see, Coca-Cola had to make a difficult decision whether to patent their product. On one hand, applying for a patent would place the secret recipe in the public market. This would allow other individuals and businesses to recreate and sell their own cola that tasted exactly like Coca-Cola after the patent expired 20 years later.

On the other hand, if Coca-Cola did not patent the secret recipe and it was stolen or misappropriated, Coca-Cola would have no recourse—even if it was stolen within 20 years of when it was first invented.

Using Contracts Not Patents to Protect the Secret Formula

Ultimately, the decision by Coca-Cola to not patent their product was the right one. It has been over a century and the secret recipe is still not out in the public. While many competitors and culinary experts have attempted to recreate Coca-Cola, the consensus is that the real recipe has never been matched in terms of taste.

To keep this legendary secret, Coca-Cola has relied on the use of contract law to keep those who know the secret recipe (which is rumored to be no more than two people at a time) from divulging one of the best-kept secrets in the world.

Is a Patent Right for Your Product?

The use of contracts rather than patents highlights how companies can opt to protect their secret recipes, trade secrets, and their inventions through other means. If something as popular as Coca-Cola, a product sold worldwide for over a century, can keep its secret recipe protected, then other products could equally be protected.

But this is a risky decision to make. The failure to adequately protect a product could result in a disaster for a company. Hiring a skilled and experienced intellectual property attorney is essential to protecting your company. If you or your business are seeking patent protection or looking to use a contract to guard trade secrets, ask our experienced lawyers at Paul & Paul how we can help you today by dialing (866) 201-8191 or by emailing us through our easy-to-use contact us box available here.


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