Apple Asserts iPhone and iPad Shape Trademarks

Apple recently sued Samsung, claiming that the Korean manufacturer’s mobile phones and tablets infringe the trademark rights related to the iPhone and iPad line of products. I have written extensively about Apple’s unique and sophisticated approach to securing its design-related innovations with overlapping intellectual property rights. As I’ve mentioned in those writings, very few manufacturers have the legal knowledge and execution expertise to obtain shape trademarks for their products. Now it seems that Apple will assert the rights to their products’ look-and-feel in federal court against an aggressive competitor that has partnered up with another Apple arch rival, Google. Samsung’s devices use Google’s Android operating system.

In its complaint, Apple alleges that three federal configuration (shape) trademarks are infringed by Samsung’s devices. The two mobile phone devices are depicted side by side below:

Samsung's Galaxy next to Apple's iPhone

The trademarked elements relate to the rounded edges, the black finish and screen, the silver band running alongside the edge, and the configuration of software icons on the touchscreen.  Apple’s ability to obtain product shape and ornamental trademarks on all of these innovative product attributes indicate the high level of sophistication of their intellectual property strategy. Even today, many company executives are surprised to learn that it is possible to get federal trademark rights on anything other than a company name or logo. For Apple, it may be that their appreciation and investment in these product attribute trademarks may offer them a key weapon in the firecely competitive battle for mobile device supremacy.

Samsung’s allegedly infringing devices have sold well into the millions since their introduction in 2010. As part of the bundle of trademark rights, Apple may ask for reimbursement for any lost profits due to trademark infringement. Samsung’s operating margin is reportedly lower than Apple’s, yet that may still amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. Apple claims that the infringement was willful, since the copying is a case of “slavish” imitation. If this case ever reaches trial (which is unlikely) a judge and jury may award trebled damages due to Samsung’s willful behavior. Finally, and most importantly, Apple will seek a preliminary injunction early on in this litigation to prevent Samsung from selling any additional devices until the litigation is resolved. Given the strength of Apple’s trademarks, and the similarity between Apple’s and Samsung’s products, the judge may very well grant this extraordinary relief to Apple.

As part of any settlement (the more likely outcome), Apple may also require Samsung to redesign its mobile devices and tablets so that they do not create the likelihood of consumer confusion between the two competing companies’ products. That will, in the end, protect the Apple brand and differentiation that this company has worked so hard to develop and protect through the intellectual property system.

My guess is we’ll hear about a settlement to this case with terms favorable to Apple within a few months’ time.

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