Apple’s silliest legal disputes
Apple has been hit with – and instigated – some strange legal claims over the years. David Price reveals six of our favourite
The law is a serious business, but sometimes people use it in silly ways. And Apple, being the wealthiest tech company in the world, has got mixed up in more frivolous, convoluted and just plain absurd lawsuits than most.
In this article we look back on six of the silliest. Some of these are lawsuits that were essentially groundless and should have never happened in the first place; others were legally sound but
ended up drifting into odd areas, or were brought into disrepute by desperate lawyers turning to absurd arguments.
Note, also, that while Apple is on the receiving end of a huge number of frivolous lawsuits, there are a number of entries here where Apple – or its legal representatives – are the ones being silly.
1. ‘Butt-Head Astronomer’ (1993-1995)
The late astrophysicist, author and all-round visionary Carl Sagan is idolised here at iPad & iPhone User, but he loses a few hero points for his (in our opinion) overcooked reaction to a fairly innocuous tribute by Apple engineers – and this led us to the first of our silly lawsuits.
Anticipating that the Power Macintosh 7100 would sell very heavily, its makers cheekily gave the device the internal codename ‘Carl Sagan’, on the basis that the great man was famous for his
enthusiastically emphatic use of the word ‘billions’. (Billions of units sold – geddit?) All perfectly innocuous, but unfortunately, the codename was publicised in a MacWEEK article, and the man himself took exception to the idea that he was involuntarily endorsing a product he knew nothing about. He expressed his misgivings in a letter to MacWEEK that is reproduced on Letters of Note.
The engineers changed the codename but, good sense being apparently in short supply down at Apple HQ that week, called it BHA instead - this standing for ‘Butt-Head Astronomer’. This name got leaked too. Sagan sued – and lost – but Apple eventually apologised and settled out of court.
The machine’s final codename was LAW, standing for ‘Lawyers are wimps’.
2. The glass door (2011-2012)
If you clean glass too much it becomes virtually invisible, and most of us have at one time or another bumped our faces into, for example, the protective casing on the Magna Carta in the British Library on a date with a new partner. But most of us don’t see this as a money-making opportunity.
In New York, your average glass bumper is a cannier creature, however. Near the end of 2011, Evelyn Paswall, an 83-year-old grandma (and former vice-president at a Manhattan fur company – please don’t picture a penniless pensioner), walked into one of the glass doors at Apple’s Manhasset store, breaking her nose. And promptly sued the company for a million bucks, citing “the danger that this high-tech modern architecture poses to some people”.
To be fair to Ms Paswall, her experience must have been extremely painful and embarrassing: we sympathise with her experience, if not her case. A year later Apple settled out of court for undisclosed damages.
3. The Polish grocer (2012)
Apple is a vociferous defender of its trademarks and intellectual properties. This is understandable, given the importance of design and branding to Apple’s business, but occasionally it has led the company into undignified positions.
Apple has opposed countless applications for trademarks for logos involving a certain pomaceous fruit – including an Australian embodiment of the much-missed Woolworths brand, back in 2009 – even though Peggy Watt
and others have pointed out that the fruit was used as a logo at least as early as the 1930s.
This site lists some of the trademark applications that Apple has resisted.
But Apple looks particularly silly when pursuing this vendetta against companies that sell fruit - companies, in other words, that couldn’t possibly be mistaken for the world’s most beloved maker of electronic goods, and which have far more justification to be using a fruit as their logo. In 2012 Apple filed a complaint with the Polish patent office against an online grocer named A.pl, calling foul on its name and a logo with an apple in it that A.pl’s parent company, fresh24, planned to use.
Given that A.pl actually sells apples, unlike its more famous Cupertino-based near-namesake (as well as other food, cleaning products and
so on – but not laptops and video-editing software, you’ll note), this seemed like a reach. A.pl called the accusation “ludicrous” and many commentators agreed.
Zakupy na klikniecie!
4. Samsung tablets aren’t as cool (2012)
The legal disputes between Apple and Samsung are legendary; at one stage they were involved in more than 50 cases with one another around the world. These cases produced various results: Apple got a big win in its home state, where it was awarded a billion dollars in damages (although this was later reduced on appeal), but Samsung scored victories in its own home (South Korea), as well as Japan and the UK.
Well, we say Samsung won in the UK, but there was a sting in the tail: Judge Colin Birss argued that Samsung tablets are unlikely to be confused with iPads because they’re “not as cool”. Enjoy the win, Samsung!
5. The zero-length swipe (2012)
Like many of us, US Circuit Judge Richard Posner felt that the rash of lawsuits afflicting the mobile tech industry in 2012 was getting out of hand.
Posner threw out a patent dispute between Apple and Motorola – on the principle that neither side could show they had been harmed by the other’s actions, and that the cost of a trial would be “contrary to the public interest” – and called one of Apple’s arguments “silly” and one of Motorola’s “ridiculous”.
Apple was arguing that its patent for ‘swipe to unlock’ should also cover a tap, because “a tap is a zero-length swipe”. Yep, pretty silly.
6. The handbag maker (2012-2016)
Apple’s had a mixed ride when it comes to the iPhone trademark. The first iPhone-branded tech
product was actually made by Linksys, which led to a dispute over use of the name which Apple settled in 2007; and ever since, the firm has been fighting to stop other companies climbing on board.
China has been a particularly lucrative destination for the world’s jetsetting trademark-law specialists, but not all of Apple’s legal disputes in that nation have been successful. In May 2016, for example, Western tech fans were surprised and frankly baffled to hear that the Beijing Municipal High People’s Court had ruled that Xintong Tiandi Technology would be able to continue using the word ‘IPHONE’ on leather goods such as phone cases and handbags. (Why well-heeled Chinese women would want handbags labelled IPHONE is beyond us, incidentally, but perhaps it’s no worse than one of us getting a tattoo of a meaningless phrase written out in Chinese.)
The case hinged on Apple proving that its brand was widely known in China before Xintong applied for its trademark in 2007 – and since the iPhone didn’t hit that market until 2009, it was always going to be tough. Apple has requested a retrial.