Trademark protection serves a crucial role in the marketplace. It is the tool for businesses to establish and protect their identities, fostering consumer trust and preventing confusion in the marketplace, as well as a host of other functions. However, there have also been instances of trademark eligibility being pushed to its limits-- igniting scrutiny and debates on whether certain parties are reaching too far in their quest to control their image. A recent example that highlights this issue is the case of tech giant Apple Inc.'s attempt to secure trademarking for… apples, the actual fruit.
As per Wired.com reports, this peculiar case started back in 2017 when Apple applied the Trademark registration to the Swiss Institute of Intellectual Property (IPI) concerning a black-and-white depiction of the “Granny Smith” type of apple. This application included the use of said apple’s likeness for a variety of their goods and hardware.
Apple’s application was granted, but only partially. Given the general principle of Trademark registration that limits the registration of common items, the IPI did not grant to some of the rights that were requested in the application. Apple, as many mega companies would do, launched an appeal which is currently still under process.
Apple’s attempts garnered considerable attention, especially in Switzerland. The Fruit Union Suisse, a Swiss fruit farmers’ organization which has preceded Apple Inc for more than six decades, has expressed concern over the recent development. Not a surprising stance given that they have a red apple with a white cross as their symbol, along with the tech company’s perceived aggressive reputation over Trademark protection.
Fruit Union Suisse director Jimmy Mariéthoz has issued a statement declaring the worry over the lack of clarity on the limits of Apple’s trademark rights.. “We’re concerned that any visual representation of an apple—so anything that’s audiovisual or linked to new technologies or to media—could be potentially impacted. That would be a very, very big restriction for us. Theoretically, we could be entering slippery territory every time we advertise with an apple.” He’d further stress his point by saying “You know, Apple didn’t invent apples … We have been around for 111 years. And I think apples have been around for a few thousand more”
Trademark Protection of Common Items
According to the World Intellectual Property Organization's database, Apple's ambitious Trademark attempts in Switzerland were far from their first. However, their applications were rejected in some countries. It's safe to assume that this mixed success and the overall controversy they sparked can be pinned down to the general principle of Trademark protection that limits the ownership of common goods and terms.
Trademark protection is generally regarded as a method for businesses to safeguard their brand identity. While this is certainly true, it's important to note that general trademark norms also protect the well-being of the general public and markets by preventing monopolies. One example of this concerns the Trademarking of goods and terms generally considered common use. On paper, this principle is to prevent a scenario in which one party has a disproportionate amount of power in the market share by negating fair competition and consumer choice. Imagine if a café franchise could have ownership over such general terms as "coffee" or "cappuccino". Such a thing would create serious barriers for other businesses and stifle markets.
This general principle is applied in Trademark laws across the world. In Indonesia, for example, such concerns are stipulated in Article 20 of Law No 20 Year 2016 on Trademarks. That article details what Trademarks would not be granted the application, including Trademarks of "common names" and Trademarks that only mentions objects and services without further descriptions.
In short, Trademark law seeks to strike a balance between protecting the interests of individual businesses, the market and the general public's right to use common terms and items. This balance not only provides businesses with the opportunity to protect their identity and maximize their financial potential but also encourages competition, fosters innovation, and promotes a healthy marketplace.
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Law No 20 Year 2016 on Trademarks