Apps and Oranges: Behind Apple’s ‘Bullying’ on Trademarks

The company has opposed singer-songwriters, school districts and food blogs for trying to trademark names or logos featuring apples – or pear or pineapple.

Reported by Ryan Mack from Los Angeles and Callen Browning from San Francisco.


When Genevieve St. John started a sex-and-life coaching blog in 2019, designing a logo for the neon green and pink apple business, which was cut to match the female genitalia.

Shortly after applying for the logo registration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that year, Ms. St. John got an unpleasant surprise. Her request was challenged – by Apple.

In a 246-page protest filing, the iPhone maker’s lawyers wrote that Ms. St. John’s logo was “likely to tarnish Apple’s image, which Apple itself has cultivated by explicitly not engaging in sexual or pornographic content.”

Ms. St. John, 41, a human resources practitioner in Chandler, Ariz., Had a crestfall. Without the money to hire a lawyer and take Tech Behemoth, she decided not to answer Apple’s challenge. It paved the way for a default ruling in favor of the electronics giant.

“I didn’t even make money from it,” she said. St. John said about his blog, which he has put on pause. “But it’s Apple, and I can’t argue with them because I don’t have a million dollars.”

Ms. St. John is one of dozens of entrepreneurs, small businesses and corporations who have gone after Apple in recent years to apply for trademark names with the word “apple” or the logo of the stemmed fruit. Between 2019 and last year, Apple, the world’s most valuable public company worth 2. 2.6 trillion, filed 215 trademark protests to defend its logo, name or product titles, according to the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit watchdog. The group said more than the estimated 136 trademark protests filed collectively by Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Google in the same period.

Apple is a more common term than corporate names like Microsoft or Google, and the higher rates derive in part from it. Many copycats, especially in China, have tried to draft Apple’s name or logo in the tech and entertainment industries.

But Apple has repeatedly targeted organizations that have nothing to do with tech or are numerous in size. He has also set his sights on the logo which includes other fruits like oranges and pears.

Its mines include the Indian Food Blog, the Energy Department, the Wisconsin Public School District and Mattel, which makes the hit card game Apples to Apples. Apple also objected to the orange logo used by a curbside pickup start-up called Citrus. Last year, it settled a dispute with a meal plan app called Prepair when the app’s creator agreed to change a leaf on its peer logo to make it look less like Apple.

Christine Farley, a professor at Washington College of Law at American University, said the scale of the company’s campaign was “unnecessary for bullying tactics and for Apple to save the public from confusion.”

Citrus; Department of Energy; Super Healthy Kids, the company behind the preparation; And the Patent and Trademark Office declined to comment. Mattel did not respond to requests for comment.

Josh Rosenstock, an Apple spokesman, said the law “requires” the company to protect its trademark by filing a protest with the patent trademark office, if there are concerns about new trademark applications.

“When we look for applications that are overly comprehensive or confusing to our customers, our first step is always to reach out and try to resolve them quickly and amicably,” he said. “Legal action is always our last resort.”

Apple is protesting trademarks against entities that have already obtained patent and trademark approval of the logo or name. In protest, the company argues that “Apple marks are so popular and immediately recognizable” that other trademarks would undermine the strength of its brand or “the average consumer believes that the applicant belongs to, is affiliated with or endorses Apple.” Is. “

Some of the targets said that while they were convinced that their trademarks did not infringe on Apple’s domain, they could not show up in vain because they did not have the resources to fight the company against the trademark trial and the Board of Appeals. Between 2019 and 2021, 37 entities, or about 17 percent, withdrew their trademark applications in protest of Apple or its subsidiary Beats Electronics. Another 127 individuals or entities, or 59 percent, did not respond to challenges and defaulted, according to data from the Tech Transparency Project.

Stephanie Carlisle, an independent singer-songwriter, said she was shocked when Apple raised the issue with her stage name, Frankie Pineapple’s trademark in 2020. In the filing, Apple admitted that an apple and a pineapple are different, but said they were “both.” The name of the fruit, and thus a similar commercial impression. “The company also considered objecting to Ms.

“It’s not even an apple,” Ms. Carlisle, 46, who has just started presenting music and has seven monthly listeners on Spotify. “You tell people they can’t fit the fruit or anything that has this connection with Apple Pal, which is the Juggernaut company.”

Founded in 1974, the company originally known as Apple Computer has not always been so controversial. Prior to 2000, it was only a few trademark protests per year, reaching a peak of nine in 1989, according to the Tech Transparency Project. At least one of the protesters was an electronics retailer who sold computer parts under the name “Pineapple”.

In those years, Apple Computer was better known as the defendant in the trademark case. In 1978, Apple Corps, the holding company founded by the Beatles, sued Apple Computer for trademark infringement, the first salvo in a series of legal disputes between the two companies in decades to come. In 2007, the two apples finally agreed to give the Silicon Valley company all the trademarks related to “Apple”.

Until then, Apple, which had removed “computer” from its name, was protesting dozens of trademarks annually.

As Apple grew, its legal team largely sought to stem the tide of the brand, said Barton Bibe, a professor at New York University Law School. In intellectual property theory, the legal argument is not that a person would be confused by two different trademarks, but that giving a new one instead would reduce the value of a home logo or name, he said.

Mr. Bibe said. “That’s the judges’ argument.”

Ashley Dobbs, a law professor at Richmond University, said Apple has since created a template to challenge the trademark application. That is clear from his response to the two applicants, where he used anti-cookie-cutter language.

One response was from the Appleton Area School District, a public education system for 16,000 students in Appleton, Wis., Featuring three interconnected apple logos. The other was Big Apple Curry, an Indian cooking blog from New York City, named after him. In Apple’s filing against him, word of mouth was copied across sections to establish the company’s brand value – “estimated value of $ 206 billion” by Forbes in 2019 – and its “extraordinary level of reputation and consumer recognition”.

Representatives from the school district and Big Apple Curry, both of which withdrew their requests, declined to comment.

“There is cost efficiency behind multiple people with the same argument,” Ms. Dobbs said. She added that Apple has other companies – such as Disney and Warner Bros. – who argues about intellectual property.

Sometimes Apple will ask the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board for an extension to file a lawsuit against the new trademark, and then they will contact the entrepreneur or business to modify their application. Lacey Brown, 38, an Atlanta artist who created a cartoon of a fictional witch doctor named Dr. Apples said it was “disastrous” when Apple submitted paperwork in 2020 asking for more time to potentially challenge its trademark application. She narrowed down her trademark request after discussions with Apple’s lawyers, who never made an official protest.

But last year Apple raised the issue when Ms. Brown tried to trademark his podcast, “Talk About Apple,” which was written by his Dr. Apple character. In protest, the company argued that people could confuse its podcasts with its podcast service.

“She’s an African American witch doctor who talks about fantasy and monsters and ghosts,” Ms. Said Brown. “By no means do I want to convey that I recommend for the mother to be inactive.” She, however, withdrew the trademark application of her podcast.

In 2019, Dr. Surya Reddy applied for the trademark logo and name of Apple Urgent Care, which operates clinics in Riverside County, California. Apple objected, noting that in its logo, its own logo was missing a piece of apple and contained an “angular-separate leaf.”

Dr. Reddy said he thought Apple’s case was ridiculous because it was not a medical care provider. But he did not have the money to test that theory and he dropped his application.

“I’m a small company,” he said. “Once they object, you feel very little.”

Ms. However, Carlisle responded to Apple in court and won the waiver. The company agrees to stop pursuing its protest if it includes a disclaimer on its trademark application noting that Frankie Pineapple – a nod and fruit to her late father, Frankie, sometimes considered a rebellious, feminist symbol – is real There was no name. .

While it cost her about $ 10,000 to legalize, Ms. Carlisle got some inspiration from it. She said her first single, which is about her sticking to a man and using a well-known explosive, was inspired by her fight with Apple.

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