Intellectual Property Rights and the Coffee Machine Wars

December 22, 2014

Keurig k-cup green mountain coffeeOne of the most recent fronts in the war over digital rights management is, surprisingly enough, focused on coffee brewers.  Copyright enforcement is now being used to assert proprietary control over single-serving coffee machine refills.  In this way, the struggle over commercial control over intellectual property has now found its way into your daily coffee rituals.

One of the pioneers in the single-serving coffee machine marketplace is Keurig.  That company’s “K-cup” technology and system combine to form a major force in the single-serving coffee market.  Keurig is now reportedly attempting to enhance its competitive position by using copyright law to limit other manufacturers of single-serving coffee “pods.”

Industry observers report that Keurig has announced its intention to make its next-generation of coffee machines incompatible with pods manufactured by companies that have not obtained licenses from Keurig for the pod technology.  Apparently, Keurig machines will now be designed to operate only with pods that carry the appropriate digital rights management information

Reportedly, Keurig machines will now read digital identification information presented on each pod.  The machines will accept only those pods that carry the digital information designating them as properly licensed equipment.

Many consumers were apparently critical of Keurig when the new system was announced.  Not surprisingly, they began to look for ways in which the Keurig machines could be made to accept pods created by other manufacturers.  Soon, online platforms began to carry information developed by individual consumers offering apparent methods to “hack” the system.

Individual consumers have reportedly identified methods that can be used to confuse the Keurig machines into accepting non-Keurig pods, and those consumers are apparently sharing that information online.  Reportedly, by taping Keurig pod lids onto the lids of pods made by other manufacturers or by taping the Keurig lids directly onto the machines, the Keurig machines can be confused into accepting non-Keurig pods.

The Keurig incident provides a useful illustration of the now routine process of intellectual property rights enforcement and resulting circumvention efforts.  Companies such as Keurig are entirely within their legal rights to assert their intellectual property claims as aggressively as they see fit.  Those companies often find, however, that aggressive intellectual property rights enforcement against consumers may not always be in their best commercial interest.

Aggressive intellectual property rights enforcement by companies frequently encourages a negative commercial response from individual consumers.  That consumer backlash can harm the reputation of the company involved and ultimately lead to lost revenue.

It is certainly important for businesses to recognize the economic value of their intellectual property and to protect that value.  Care must be exercised, however, to ensure that rights management strategies and practices do not evolve into customer relations nightmares.