Apple battles trademark sleuths bent on revealing gadget names
One of Apple’s most fiercely guarded secrets? The name of the next iPhone. It’s known that the device will launch later this year, complete with a stainless steel and glass body, a better screen and a speedy 3D sensor that recognizes your face. It may be called the iPhone X, to celebrate the iconic product’s 10th anniversary, or maybe just iPhone 8. But Tim Cook doesn’t want us to know for sure until he utters the name on stage.
In recent years, Apple-obsessed sleuths have managed to ferret out the names and details of the company’s products by searching trademark offices around the world. But their challenge has become exponentially harder thanks to a well-timed rule change at Jamaica’s trademark office and some clever manoeuvring in Liechtenstein.
First, a little background. Apple has employed various tactics to keep its product names secret over the years. One is to simply register the name via a Delaware shell company. That’s what the company did as it was preparing to launch the iPad in 2010. But the trademark was also filed in major regions like Asia, and by the time Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad at a splashy event in San Francisco, the self-styled detectives had plastered the product’s name all over the web.
A more effective approach also used by Google, Amazon and other tech companies involves registering names in foreign countries without searchable trademark databases. The tactic leverages a rule in section 44(d) of the U.S. Trademark Act that lets companies apply for a trademark in one country and receive registration priority in the U.S. if filed there within six months of the original, foreign filing date. Of the 177 countries that comply with U.S. rules, 66 lack online trademark databases. These include Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Peru and Jamaica. The latter has become a favourite hiding place for companies such as Apple.
The Jamaica Intellectual Property Office is housed in a modern palm-flanked building in the capital, Kingston. Thirty-one people work there and at least 10 trademark searches are conducted each day, according to the office’s director Lilyclaire Bellamy. The only way to conduct searches is in-person, meaning sleuths need to fly to Jamaica or hire a local trademark lawyer to search the office’s computer system like an old-school library. Searches are free; it costs 150 Jamaican dollars ($1.17) to print out each page.
Last year, a Dublin-area attorney named Brian Conroy, paid a local law firm hundreds of dollars to search the Jamaica office’s onsite computers — and hit a rich vein. Months before Apple’s September and October launch events last year, Conroy published a list of trademarks applied for in Jamaica. One pair of filings, the “iPhone 7” and “iPhone 7 Plus,” were obviously the next handset models. Conroy also pulled up less obvious names like “AirPods” and “Touch Bar.” The AirPods ended up being the name for Apple’s new wireless earphones, while the Touch Bar is the touch screen strip on the latest MacBook Pro keyboards.
Apple will launch a new iPhone later this year. What it will be called is a closely guarded secret.