How it’s done

by Michael O. Allen on May 14, 2008

An assistant professor of business law at Michigan Technological University’s School of Business and Economics, Houghton, Mich., and a clinical professor of technology industry management at the Kellogg Center for Research in Technology and Innovation at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., embarked on trying to crack one of Apple Computers code.

They wanted to find out how the innovative company secures its intellectual property while profiting from its inventions (and masterful packaging of other people’s inventions).

One of the secrets? A masterful trademarking strategy.

STEP BY STEP Apple first sought a trademark for a two-dimensional iPod symbol (top left), then for a mark for co-branded products (bottom left), and finally for the three-dimensional shape of its players

BUSINESS INSIGHT
Innovation_Shape of Things to Come: How Apple’s trademark for its iPod protects its brand — and offers lessons for other companies on how to leverage their intellectual property By DAVID OROZCO AND JAMES CONLEY, May 12, 2008

On Jan. 8, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Apple Inc. a trademark for the three-dimensional shape of its iPod media player.

This was more than a recognition of an innovative product design. It also was Apple’s capping piece in a multiyear marketing and legal campaign that pushed intellectual-property rights to new competitive advantage for the company.

In many ways, Apple is benefiting from an expansion of U.S. trademark rights, beyond the traditional names, images, logos and two-dimensional symbols trademarks usually secure. In recent years, trademarks have been granted for such things as product shapes, colors and scents that companies can claim are linked exclusively to the source company in consumers’ minds.

These nontraditional marks are difficult to obtain. But unlike more commonly used utility and design patents, which exist to cover functions and the ornamental look and feel of products and expire after a set number of years, trademarks can remain in force potentially forever.

The iPod shape trademark gives Apple a new weapon in the fiercely competitive market for media players. While competitors may eventually appropriate the iPod’s inner workings, as utility patents expire, they will risk litigation if their products come too close to the trademarked shape of the iPod, including its popular circular-touchpad interface.

Moreover, trademark law allows the holder to sue not only manufacturers but also distributors of competing products whose attributes so resemble those of the protected mark that they create the likelihood of confusion in the marketplace.

The Apple strategy is particularly important because companies typically don’t give enough attention to the management and potential value of trademarks — especially when it comes to the nontraditional variety. This is partly because trademarks, like other intellectual properties, are complex assets. But they can make a significant difference.

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