Apple has been known for its protective stance towards its patents to ensure that their iPads and other iOS devices are safe from counterfeits and copycats. Now, they have extended their protectiveness to their stores.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has recently granted the electronics giant a patent to trademark the design and layout of its retail outlets. They were specific when they mentioned even the storefront and the façade. Also, the stools and the positioning of the video screens were taken into account. Apple applied for the patent in May 2010 but managed to only get it on January 22, 2013.
This could be due to the fake Apple store that was spotted in Kunming, China by an American who resided in the city which got a lot of media attention thanks to a published blog post by the same person. It was said to look very authentic and managed to fool even the employees of the store who thought they were indeed working for a real Apple store. Their shirts were the same color as the employees of Western branches, as well as toted lanyards that were the same design as the ones in other countries. After the first store was found, Kunming authorities started a search for more copycat stores. They have found 22 counterfeit Apple stores in just one city in China. These shops have since been told to cease using the Apple logo because of laws in China that do not allow companies to have similarities in appearance with others without permission. It was unsure if the fake store was selling genuine Apple products from official distributors or from the grey market.
The design of the Apple store was an aspect that greatly interested the company’s former CEO, the late Steve Jobs. In the past, Apple was already granted a design patent for one of the characteristics in their stores: the floating glass staircases. This was in 2003 and Jobs was listed as an inventor on the patent. These days, this sort of trademark right over interior design is of great importance, dating back to 1992, when the U.S Supreme Court gave a chain of fast food Mexican restaurants to trademark its design and decorations. This trademark is called a trade dress, which is defined as:
“Trade dress is the design and appearance of a product together with the elements making up the overall image that serves to identify the product presented to the consumer. Yankee Candle Co., Inc. v. Bridgewater Candle Co., LLC, 259 F.3d 25, 38 (1st Cir. 2001). In other words, trade dress is a product’s “look and feel.” Trade dress may include features such as size, shape, color or color combinations, texture, graphics, or even particular sales techniques. Two Pesos, Inc. v. Taco Cabana, Inc., 505 U.S. 763, 765 n.1 (1992).” (Gough Shanahan Johnson Waterman)
For any company to succeed with their trade dress claim, it has to prove that customers have truly gotten confused and mistook a similar looking store for theirs, or vice versa. In this case, Apple has to show the court that their customers have confused a counterfeit store with one of their original establishments in terms of design. If you notice some companies share a few qualities, this is not exactly illegal. It is all a matter of how far another company can go with borrowing designs from another business without being accused of infringing.
Though Apple has managed to procure a trademark for their stores, it only applies to the United States. It seems to be only a matter of time before they get granted patents for stores outside of American territory.