Hans Hilfiker of SBB national railways designed the analog alarm clock for your iPhone back in 1944. True, Apple didn’t come into existence until April 1, 1976-but today, Apple avoids a lengthy and costly litigation process with the Swiss railway in a $21 million purchase. This is creating a lot of buzz on the internet partly because our mouths drop at the massive eight-figure sum. It also ignites a healthy discussion on intellectual property rights for technological advances like the Apple touch-screen to the distribution and sharing of online graphic art and designs.
The three main areas of intellectual property include copyright, patents, and trademarks. Copyrights protect the authorship of literary and artistic works while patents involve the registry of inventions, and trademarks deal exclusively with commercial symbols and labels.
It is a design icon that has obviously lost none of its appeal in the digital age…Even now, it symbolizes the innovation and reliability that are key qualities attributed to both SBB and Switzerland as a whole.
-SBB via Reuters
Apple – purchasing IP defensively
Apple may have used the Swiss clock in an unauthorized reproduction and sale of the design on its more than 80 million iPhones. SBB, the sole owner of the trademark of the station clock, had the right to seek injunctive relief and damages sustained with additional claim on the defendant’s profits. Thankfully Apple acted quickly to buy a ‘timeless artistic rendition of time’ worth far less than litigation dispute.
What do recent trademark disputes tell us about modern justice?
In 2009 Guess’ trademark infringement with Gucci cost them $4.7 million (initial $221 million claim) in damages because of similarly placed G’s copying the iconic design of Gucci’s genuine Italian leather sneakers. The pattern in dispute is a very clear violation whereas the similar use of a name complicated a decision made in 2011 by the Bern Commercial Court. The Swiss watch manufacturer, Omega AG, filed a trademark infringement suit against Frank Muller who used the word ‘MEGA’ in the design of his product. The Swiss Trademark Act requires that a commercial sign bear a distinctive character for it to be registered as a trademark. Therefore trademarks for the word “phone”, “clock” or “time” are not eligible.
The conclusion of the case highlights the distinction between two competing products’ clientele and industry. The judge decided that the watches’ prices, distribution channels, technology and consumers were different thereby rejecting the claim that MEGA was a violation in trademark OMEGA. In the Apple vs. Railway dispute, can we make a parallel and assert that clocks sitting in a station are likely not confused with the virtual clocks on our iPhones?
My advice for start-ups seeking patents, copyright protection and various other methods to avoid criminal or financial repercussions-hire a good lawyer. Do your due diligence when it comes to registering your business. Litigation is getting nasty.