The Tragic Tale Of A Man Who Tried To Copyright A Sandwich

Fried chicken sandwich
“Okay, I’ll make it as easy for you as I can. I’d like an omelette, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce, and a cup of coffee.” —Bobby Dupea, “Five Easy Pieces” (1970)

In A Nutshell

In 1987, Norberto Colon Lorenzana had a minor brainwave. A new employee at fast food outlet Church’s Chicken in Puerto Rico, Lorenzana realized there was no simple fried chicken sandwich on the menu. After a few years, he convinced management this was a huge mistake, and the Pechu Sandwich was born. A basic chicken sandwich, it was such a hit that Church’s Chicken’s profits soared. Lorenzana, however, didn’t see a penny, a fact that triggered his doomed attempt to copyright his creation.

The Whole Bushel

If you walked into Church’s Chicken in Puerto Rico and ordered a Pechu Sandwich, it’s doubtful you’d think there was anything special about it. A slice of fried chicken placed between two buns and garnished with tomato, lettuce, mayonnaise, and American cheese, it’s exactly the sort of sandwich you can get in every other fast food place in the world. But this sandwich has been at the center of a long-running and expensive legal battle after someone tried to copyright it.

That “someone” was Norberto Colon Lorenzana. A former employee of Church’s Chicken, he joined as a lowly clerk in 1987, serving fast food to customers craving a simple chicken hit. However, Lorenzana wasn’t content to just flip burgers. He had big ideas for helping his employers, starting with the menu.

At the time, Church’s only sold chicken by the piece. Lorenzana was convinced this was a mistake and that they were missing a huge chunk of the market. What they needed on offer was a chicken sandwich. It took years of pestering, but Lorenzana finally got his way. In 1991, the Pechu Sandwich debuted. It was an instant hit, the sort of hit most chicken stores can only dream of. As the crowds poured in, Lorenzana’s employers netted millions of dollars. That’s when the problems started.

Church’s Chicken refused to pay Lorenzana a penny for his creation. Denied what he saw as his rightful compensation, Lorenzana decided in 2014 to do something about it. Filing a suit for $10 million in damages, he set about trying to copyright the concept of a chicken sandwich.

It was an absurd case, and it failed miserably. The US Copyright Act notably excludes recipes, even when they’re the work of a seriously inventive chef. In a 2006 investigation, The Guardian concluded that only the most groundbreaking recipe could ever hope to be copyrighted, and only then if it was substantially different from every other dish in existence. In Lorenzana’s case, he wasn’t even close. The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit threw the case out with the damning comment: “A recipe—or any instructions—listing the combination of chicken, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and mayonnaise on a bun to create a sandwich is quite plainly not a copyrightable work.”

Perhaps not a surprising conclusion, but a sad one nonetheless. After all these years, Church’s Chicken has literally made millions off the Pechu Sandwich, while Lorenzana is penniless. For all he may have wished to get ahead in his company, perhaps the sad truth is that in 1987 Lorenzana should have kept his big ideas to himself.

Show Me The Proof

Washington Post: Man tries to copyright a chicken sandwich, learns that that’s completely ridiculous
Ars Technica: A chicken sandwich cannot be copyrighted, court rules
The Guardian: Can you copyright a dish?