The Evolution of Cookies


Cookies on the internet, or on your dessert plate?

Oh no! Cookie monster can't get his computer cookie. Image Credit:

During an intriguing, late-night discussion with Daniel Wilcox, computer guru extraordinaire, IP Checkups’ Director of Research, Analytics & Business Development, Kathryn Paisner, started thinking about the patentability of baked goods–namely, cookies.  Given the broad claims that are often granted on “fundamental” inventions, would it have been possible for Ruth Wakefield to patent the chocolate chip cookie? And, for that matter, do people even file patents on cookies?

As it turns out, the answer to both questions is unequivocally yes. The USPTO has a dedicated “Starch-Based Snack Products” cross-reference art collection, found within its “Food or Edible Material” patent classification category. (Low-calorie cookies are categorized in a separate cross-reference art collection.) Also, while most companies do not invest heavily in protecting cookie IP, various aspects of cookie production have been disclosed in over 3000 patent documents published worldwide, since 1980.

All baked goods aside, however, this research project uncovered a similarly interesting–albeit less delicious–insight, one which reflects the co-evolution (and interdependence) of language and technology.  No longer simply the sweet morsels munched by immoderate blue monsters and children of all ages, cookies have, in the past 20 years, gained a second (though perhaps equally controversial) significance.

In the technical lexicon, cookies are small pieces of information stored as text files by a web browser.  Cookies allow websites to store information on users’ computers, so that it can be retrieved (and used) at a later time. Common bits of information stored as cookies include passwords, visitor IDs, and user preferences.

Like their sugary counterparts, Internet cookies have been much-maligned by the media, in recent years. The Gadget Helpline reported that “cookie” is one of the most confusing technical words encountered by its users. Concerns about security and privacy abound.

Is the problem with Internet cookies simply that they are unfamiliar? After all, new things are scary–and Internet cookies were essentially non-existent, in the common lexicon, until perhaps 15 years ago.

The Aureka ThemeScape maps shown below document the evolution of “cookie” as a linguistic entity, at least in the patent literature. Identifying and illustrating common terms from a group of nearly 9000 patent documents that mention “cookie” in their titles, abstracts, or claims, these maps neatly delineate the two discrete contexts of cookie-related innovation: food preparation and IT.

On the first map, patents filed between January 1st, 1980 and December 31st, 1989, are shown as red dots in the larger cookie landscape. All of these patents are located near terms that somehow relate to food preparation; in the ’80s, cookies were purely edible.

On the second map, patents filed in the 1990s are shown as green dots, and the nascence of high-tech cookies is readily apparent.

A lot can change in a decade! This last map shows cookie patents filed in the first decade of the 21st Century as yellow dots. While cookie IP still appears in areas related to food preparation, it is quite clear that the Internet has seized control of this landscape.

In the end, perhaps it is most interesting to see that language and meaning can–and do!–evolve in tandem with technology, in tandem with the observed nature of reality. What does this mean for us, as we surge ahead into an unknown future? Only time will tell.

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