Keurig, the single serve coffee machine produced by Green Mountain, is nearly ubiquitous in offices, homes, and schools around the country. The device rose to popularity on the back of the K-cup, the single serve pods produced by Green Mountain that allowed a single cup of hundreds of different coffee, tea, and chocolate drinks to be brewed in a matter of seconds.
Green Mountain made $3.9 billion in sales in 2012, with 2.7 billion coming from K-cup sales. Keurig was able to maintain strong sales of its K-cups because of several patents on the design and features of the K-cup. However, in September 2012, U.S. Patent Nos. 5,353,765 and 5,840,189 expired. These two patents covered the original K-cup design. Their expiry has opened the door for generic knockoff K-cups to flood the market.
Green Mountain claims that the design covered by these patents is outdated and has been superseded by new and improved designs covered under patents that are still in force, including, U.S. Patent Nos. 6,645,537 and the still pending Application No. 20050051478. However, many generic K-cups are already on the market and work in Keurig’s brewing machines. While Keurig claims that generic K-cups will continue to make up less than 15% of the total K-cup market and stress that their current design is superior to any competing product, Green Mountain is clearly worried about the generic threat.
In early March of this year Green Mountain announced “Keurig 2.0,” an improved brewing device that would be launching as early as the fall of 2014. Among other changes over previous models, the new Keurig brewer will contain technology that prevents generic K-cups from being used. Green Mountain is the latest to introduce protections for their propriety technology, following in the footsteps of Hewlett-Packard and other printer manufacturers who have added technology to their printers preventing generic printer cartridges from being used, or software companies that have added Digital Rights Management (DRM) to their software to prevent piracy.
It is unclear exactly what sort of form this proprietary protection will take, but past forms used in printers include RFID tags. In any case, Green Mountain has made clear that they will still allow third parties to produce K-cups so long as they obtain a license from Green Mountain.
Already, a legal fight is brewing over Green Mountain’s proposed move. TreeHouse Foods and Rogers Family are already suing Green Mountain on antitrust grounds. Besides the antitrust concerns, Green Mountain may have difficulty stopping third parties that circumvent their protections. In 2012, Lexmark installed technology to prohibit generic printer ink refills in their printers and lost an appeal in the 6th Circuit for a copyright and DMCA claim against a company that developed a work around for the protection technology for their generic ink refills. In the near future, the legal precedents set by these cases could have far-reaching effects on DRM and physical proprietary protections across the market.