21 August 2023 • 4 min read
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This is the tale of one of the world's biggest trademark battles. And this one was fought between two cultural legends over almost 30 years. The decades-long saga of the iconic band "The Beatles" Apple Corps vs Apple Computers was all about...you guessed it- an apple.
What started it? And how did a company owned by a musical legend end up at loggerheads with a tech legend? Who won and how?
Let's delve into this historic trademark battle, to find out.
Before we get into the case, it's important to have a little background on the players.
Apple Corps was founded in London in January 1968 by the members of The Beatles. They wanted to replace their previous company Beatles Ltd and get better control of their finances and profits.
Their star asset was the recording label Apple Records which released some of The Beatles' most iconic albums like Abbey Road, Yellow Submarine, and Let It Be. They registered a green apple logo as their first trademark in 1969. The logo soon became an important part of their identity.
Our other player, Apple Computer, Inc. was founded in 1976. Today it's one of the biggest tech giants in the world, famous for the Apple iPhone, iPad, and the iOS interface that powers them all. By now its history is a well-known piece of Silicon Valley lore. But here's a recap anyway.
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, started out as a small business by creating the Apple I in Jobs' garage. The company's first (and short-lived) logo was a sketch of Newton sitting under an apple tree. In 1977, this was replaced by a rainbow-striped apple with a bite out of it. Eventually, it evolved into one of the most famous brand logos in the world.
Fun fact: Apparently, both Apple Corps and Apple Computer, loved puns. "Corps" is pronounced as "core" which was meant to be a pun on the fruit. Apple Computers wanted an apple with a bite out of it as a play on "byte", a basic unit of measurement for data processing.
In 1978, Apple Corps, the holding company for The Beatles and owner of their record label, Apple Records, filed a lawsuit against the then up-and-coming Apple Computer for trademark infringement. The trademark in question was the image of an Apple which both companies were using at the time.
But there was one critical difference. That of the industries the two businesses operated in. Apple Corps was squarely in the music business and Apple Computers was busy creating new technology such as the pathbreaking Mac computers.
The suit was settled in 1981 and one of the conditions of the settlement was that Apple Computer would not enter the music business. And vice-versa, Apple Corps agreed not to enter the computer business. A reasonable agreement, since neither had any plans of entering the other's territory.
But that was before a little thing called iTunes.
After the 1981 settlement, there was peace for a few years. But things became unsettled when Apple started developing computers that produced sounds. There were some attempts at renegotiating in 1987-88 but these didn't work. Then Apple Computer announced its first computers with Musical Digital Interface (MIDI) in 1989.
This well-publicized move caught Apple Corps' attention. They claimed Apple Computer was trying to elbow into their domain. And that this was a serious violation of the 1981 settlement. Another round of litigation ensued, and a new settlement was agreed upon in 1991.
But in 2003, Apple Computer introduced iTunes and made waves throughout the music industry. iTunes Music Store allowed people to buy individual music tracks, which users could then download and copy onto an iPod. With the iTunes Music Store, Apple took the downloadable media market by storm, especially at a time where Internet music sharing was at the center of many legal controversies. Recording companies and artists had to play along or get left behind.
With the computer company now well on its turf, in 2003 Apple Corps sued Apple Computer claiming that the launch of iTunes was yet another breach in their trademark agreement.
On 5 February 2007, Apple Corps and Apple Computer agreed to new terms for their trademark dispute. It was decided that Apple Inc. would own all of the trademarks related to "Apple" and license some of those trademarks back to Apple Corps to continue to use them. '
Apple Computer now known as Apple Inc. would continue using its name and logos on iTunes. Though the terms of the settlement were confidential, some media accounts at the time estimated that Apple Inc had bought Apple Corps' trademark rights for $500 million.
Steve Jobs, Apple Inc's legendary founder and CEO said after the settlement, "We love the Beatles, and it has been painful being at odds with them over these trademarks. It feels great to resolve this in a positive manner, and in a way that should remove the potential of further disagreements in the future."
The Beatles' music remains iconic to this day, as do the cutting-edge products from Apple Inc. But it's a lesson for businesses around the world, that even two giants like these had to fight a massive trademark dispute for almost three decades. This case highlights the importance of trademarks, their value as intellectual property, and the necessity of protecting them.
In the end, it was an apple that made these two legends, "Come Together" and share a piece of their identity.
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Amrusha is a versatile professional with over 12 years of experience in journalism, broadcast news production, and media consulting. Her impressive career includes collaborating extensively with prominent global enterprises. She garnered recognition for her exceptional work in producing acclaimed shows for Bloomberg, a renowned business news network. Notably, these shows have been incorporated into the esteemed curriculum of Harvard Business School. Amrusha's expertise also encompassed a 4-year tenure as a consultant at Omidyar Network, a leading global impact investing firm. In addition, she played a pivotal role in the launch and content strategy management of the startup Live History India.
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