Over the past few years, Apple has followed a pear-themed meal prep app, a singer-songwriter named Frankie Pineapple, a German bike path, a pair of stationery makers, and a school district, among others. The company fought a decades-long battle with the Beatles’ music label Apple Corps, which was finally resolved in 2007.
An investigation by the Tech Transparency Project in 2022, a nonprofit that researches Big Tech, found that between 2019 and 2021, Apple made more trademark opposition — attempts to force its IP on other companies — than Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon. And Google combined. These companies also have common terms trademarked like “Windows” or “Prime”.
Apple has a precedent in Switzerland. In 2010, the trillion-dollar company got a small Swiss grocery cooperative to enter into an out-of-court agreement declaring that it would never add a bite mark to its logo — a bright red apple inside a shopping box — something, according to the cooperative’s president, he was not into. That time is “absolutely planned”.
However, things haven’t always gone Apple’s way. In 2012, Swiss Federal Railways won a $21 million settlement after it showed that Apple had copied the design of the Swiss Railways watch. In 2015, a Switzerland-based “Apple” trademark acquired by a watch maker in the 1980s forced Apple to delay the launch of the popular Apple Watch in the country.
Apple only claims rights to this black and white apple image. However, according to Cyrill Rigamonti, who teaches intellectual property law at the University of Bern, that might actually give him the broadest possible over-form protection, allowing him to follow images in a wide range of colours. Then the question [would be]Is there a possibility of confusion regarding some other apple that is not completely identical? ” He says.
In Switzerland, anyone who can prove a past history of disputed mark use is protected in a potential trademark dispute, says Irene Calpoli, a professor at Texas A&M University School of Law and a fellow at the University of Geneva. This means that it may be difficult for Apple to enforce its branding on organizations that have used the apple symbol for decades.
However, she says, large and rich companies can often intimidate small businesses into compliance. “The system is very much tilted toward those who have more money,” she says. The mere threat of costly litigation against a huge company like Apple can be enough to intimidate people into doing “something that might be perfectly legal.”
Calpoli says the global brands business is self-sustaining. “A lot of people make a lot of money on these rights by registering them,” she says. The IPR authorities are “as guilty as the lawyers are, because the bureaus want revenue, so they issue registrations to companies for things they don’t need. This is our brand industry.” She adds that small businesses, such as apple growers in Switzerland, may need to learn how to operate the system to protect their assets. “We’re dancing and it’s hard to stop the dancing. Because the system is like this, it’s better for everyone to use it than just the big ones.”
The decision of the Swiss court will not be known for months, perhaps years. For Swiss apple growers, “millions” are at risk if they have to change their brand after making a decision. “We’re not looking to compete with Apple; we have no intention of going into the same field they’re in,” says Marythose, adding that one of the biggest things that vexed the 8,000 apple growers he’s been representing with trying to pluck the fruit is, “You know, no company invented Apple apples…we’ve been around for 111 years. And I think apples have been around for a few thousand more.”