Apple’s trademark battle for … fruit?

Over the past few years, Apple has been running a campaign to pick up the intellectual property rights for images of the apple fruit.

Apple’s trademark battle for … fruit?
The Apple Inc. logo is seen hanging at the entrance to the Apple store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, New York, U.S., October 16, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

The Apple logo is iconic, to say the least. It’s widely believed that co-founder Steve Jobs came up with the company name from his love of fruit (sometimes eating a “fruitarian” diet), suggesting it to the other co-founder Steve Wozniak. The name just stuck. And the bitten Apple logo has been central to the brand since designer Rob Janoff created it in 1977.

“I knew intuitively that I had such a great dichotomy to work with,” Janoff told Forbes magazine. “I had a computer machine thing and a natural piece of fruit. I told Regis [his boss at the time] that if we don't somehow use the fruit, the apple, we'd lose a whole lot of the fun-ness of the idea. ... I just wanted to make the computer easy and fun to be around.”

Over the past few years, Apple has been running a campaign to pick up the intellectual property rights for images of the apple fruit. Not the bitten apple icon – just the apple. This IP project has been kinda working, with the World Intellectual Property Organization’s records showing that Apple has requested these rights from dozens of IP authorities on a global scale. Officials in Japan, Turkey, Israel and Armenia have given in to some extent.

But the whole Apple trademarking crusade hasn’t gotten much attention until it headed to Switzerland, where it just appealed a decision by the Swiss IP agency after it said basically the image of an apple is a public good that can’t be trademarked.  

“Specifically, [Apple is] trying to gain rights over a photographic – a really true-to-life depiction of an apple variety that's called the Granny Smith,” ​​explains reporter Gabriela Galindo to NPR. “Now, this is the generic green apple that you can find in the supermarket anywhere. And so they want to own the rights to that particular image in Switzerland, and they applied for that protection to the IP rights office in Switzerland [the IPI]. ... And last fall, the IPI said you can have it, but only for some of the goods that you want it for.”

So that’s why Apple appealed. It wants full protection over the image, not just for a limited type of representation.

On August 10, a Swiss court published its decision, and it overturned the IPI’s decision, giving Apple more IP rights over the image of a Granny Smith apple. This decision isn’t necessarily final, as it can still be appealed at the Federal Court.

Fruit farmers like the Fruit Union Suisse, which uses a red apple logo with a white cross (although it doesn’t have a bite taken out like Apple’s iconic logo, are worried about this litigation and what it could mean for their own logos and imagery.

“You know,” says organization director Jimmy Mariéthoz, “Apple didn’t invent apples. We have been around for 111 years. And I think apples have been around for a few thousand more.”