In addition to developing and marketing (better than anyone else) a series of cool products and services, Apple has become a legal juggernaut. It’s taking on everyone and everything for anything, including for presumed violations of its patents and trademarks. Billions are at stake in these entanglements. Its bitten-into-apple logo is sacred. The color red is sacred. And so are red apples of any kind, apparently.
If Apple keep going down the same track, it may soon file a trademark case against the most revered painters, such as Albrech Dürer, whose famous Adam and Eve, with fig leaves at just the right spots but otherwise naked, are both holding, to Apple’s chagrin, an apple; Adam by its stem and Eve sensuously between her fingers. And if Apple could ever figure out the logistics, it would sue the Old Testament for having used the concept of an apple in Genesis.
But when it came to a small cafe in the town of Bonn, the former capital of former West Germany, Apple figured it out very quickly.
A gal named Christin Römer opened her café in May 2011 and called it “Apfelkind,” German for apple child, the name of a nearby orchard. Its logo was a red apple, not bitten into, but with the silhouette of a girl’s head ingeniously superimposed. A cute logo, feminine, playful, and not at all reminiscent of Apple’s bitten-into apple, other than that both were playing on the theme of an apple. She registered the logo with the Patent and Trademark Office in Munich (DPMA) and plastered it on cups, cushions, and chairs.
“I love the logo and have used it everywhere,” she told The Local at the time. “I wanted to do something like Starbucks, and have the logo as my trademark. I was even thinking of eventually expanding and creating a franchise business so other people could open up other Apfelkind cafés, which is why I wanted to register the trademark.”
It would be a child-friendly place where you could go for some good coffee and homemade apple pies, and buy some of these cups and other branded merchandise. An entrepreneur with a vision! In America, we value that, and we encourage it. It makes us think of IPOs and jobs. But not at Apple. At the epicenter of mythic Silicon Valley, they tried to squash it.
In September 2011, she received a letter from Apple. The company saw a clear danger that both logos could be confused, in particular her choice of the color red and the leaf on the apple stem (Apple’s logo doesn’t have a stem). The apple in Dürer’s painting is red as well, as are most apples on images around the world. And the apple Adam is holding has both a stem and some leaves. The letter demanded that she withdraw her trademark applications, cease to use the logo, sign the letter, and remain silent about it. So that her vision would evaporate quietly.
“I’m not going to accept that,” she said at the time. “At first I couldn’t believe the letter – then I called my lawyer.”
The legal battle – proportionately much more pitched than David and Goliath – dragged on. Last year, Apple tried to bamboozle her into signing a settlement whereby she would graciously be allowed to continue using her logo on her cups and toys but couldn’t use it to market and sell electronics. And she would have to remain silent about the settlement. It was that gag provision that caused her to turn it down.
But now suddenly, after two years of fighting, Apple withdrew its claims from the DPMA this week, without giving any reasons. It was an ingenious – and possibly insidious – move: since there was no final decision by the DPMA or by a court, the dispute has in essence not been resolved, and Apple, if it runs out of other people to harass, could start all over again.
On the positive side of the ledger, the café got some good publicity out of it, and its owner has plans to do what Steve Jobs would have done too: develop the product, expand the brand, and branch out. The vision lives. Someday, perhaps, there will be new franchises, and clothes, and products for children. Unless, someday, Apple decides otherwise.
The incident speaks volumes about American tech giants and their godlike notions of who they are and what exactly they possess – including the very idea of an apple, bitten into or not, including its color. And it adds to the already richly painted picture of what powers they think they have, supported by money, lawyers, loopholes, and laws, and what personal information they can gather on everyone using and not using their products and services, and to what extent they’re exempt from paying taxes anywhere in the world.