Indie Economics

Apple trademarks store layout, genius idea dries up

David Brancaccio Jul 14, 2014

Another one of my genius ideas has just bitten the dust.   

A headline hit the news wires that that Apple can have a trademark on the layout of its stores. Obviously, Apple has a trademark on the fruit-shaped logo that’s on its stores. Now, a court in Brussels says that the design of the store itself is a trademark, meaning it’s a sign: If you see a retail layout with a lot of white and glass, flat tables with electronics gear and a Genius bar, then that tells you it’s an Apple store –  not a lingerie store, a plumbing supply store, or a Samsung store.

It turns out Apple already had a trademark on its store layout in the U.S. This is sad for me because I had a fabulous concept that was going to make me rich. What about setting up a Genius Bar that serves drinks? It would feature, wait for it, the Apple-tini. (Note to Apple lawyers: that’s a joke, just a joke. My grandfather owned a bar in Brooklyn but I have no plans).

The story of the Apple store is interesting because it highlights the different ways people can protect their creations in an economy increasingly driven by intellectual property. Apple’s store layout isn’t an invention, so it wouldn’t get a patent. Apple’s store layout is not a tangible expression of a work of authorship, like a book, a photograph, or a song which could get copyright protection. In America, a trademark is a phrase, a design, or words that distinguishes Apple stores from another store. And these things can be worth a fortune.

At the dawn of the Internet when I was hosting Marketplace, I got sick and tired of the overused metaphor to describe the emerging web. It was “information superhighway” just about every time. Every innovation was an “onramp to the information highway,” or a glitch was a “broken down truck on the information superhighway.” So I asked Marketplace listeners to suggest an alternative metaphor.

Back then, one (genius) listener had a fabulous suggestion. Instead of the information superhighway, why not call it the ELVIS: The Electronic Linkage for Video and Information Services? So I mentioned this listener suggestion on the radio, as a joke.  Ha, ha, one Marketplace listener wants to call the information superhighway the ELVIS instead.

And as night follows day, Marketplace received a cease and desist letter from Elvis Presley’s lawyers, warning us that this would violate the King’s intellectual property. At one level? Give me a break, this wasn’t a going concern we were calling The ELVIS, it was a line in a listener response segment of a radio show. On the other hand, maybe they were smart to write the letter, because calling the Internet The ELVIS was the kind of very clever idea that could have had legs. Mind you, this was in 1994 – way, way before people were pumping video through the Internet. That was a listener with some serious foresight.

What are other creative ways people have used intellectual property law?  The top NBA draft pick from a couple of years ago, Anthony Davis, got a copyright on his unibrow. Obviously he didn’t invent the concept of eyebrows that flow together, so he couldn’t patent it. He didn’t compose the unibrow symphony, so copyright wouldn’t work. But when it comes to distinguishing himself from other sports figures, the “basketball guy with the unibrow” was judged to be a way to distinguish his brand from the competition.

Take the quiz below to see if you can guess which signature sayings and brands are trademarked.

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