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Sara Lee loses EU patent on coffee pads for Philips's Senseo

Sara Lee Corp. lost a challenge to a patent on the filters used in Royal Philips Electronics NV's Senseo coffee machine, ending efforts to block competitors from selling cheaper copies. The Chicago-based company, together with Philips, has been suing manufacturers of Senseo-compatible filters since 2001. The European Patent Office in Munich Aug. 30 revoked Sara Lee's patent for the pads and the pad holder that's included with the machine, capping a five-year dispute with competitors including Northfield, Illinois-based Kraft Foods Inc.

Philips, Europe's largest maker of coffee machines, and Sara Lee have sold more than 12 million Senseo machines since 2001. „We're very disappointed since we invested a lot of time, energy and money,” Suzanne Rotteveel, spokeswoman for Sara Lee in the Netherlands, said in a telephone interview yesterday. „It's disappointing when you are not able to regain a part of that investment.” Although there are other cases pending, „what this ruling means is that we no longer have protection for our patent in Europe,” Rotteveel said. Caroline Kamerbeek, a spokeswoman for Amsterdam-based Philips, said only Sara Lee would comment in this case.

The European Patent Office, which opened in 1978 to establish a harmonized patent system in Europe, yesterday has 31 member countries. The office is the only place in Europe where companies can get so-called European patents, one-stop protection across all EPO member states that the company chooses. Sara Lee's European patent covered 19 countries, including the seven where the Senseo machine has been introduced: Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, the UK, France, Austria and Germany. „Other companies can now freely continue to sell those pads,” said Armand Killan, a lawyer for UK law firm Bird & Bird, which represented Dutch retail chain Vomar Voordeelmarkt in the case. Other companies involved in Aug. 30's case included Kraft Foods and German coffee maker Minges Kaffee, both of which make Senseo-compatible pads. „The ruling also means that prices for Senseo's own pads will probably go down,” said Killan. In the UK, Senseo's own coffee pads, or coffee pods, retail at £ 2.29 ($4.37) for a pack of 18. Kraft's Kenco Caffee Crema coffee pods, which can be used in the Senseo machine, retail at £ 2.18 for 18 pods. (Bloomberg)