They Own WHAT? Nine Tech Patent and Trademark Oddities

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"Everything that can be invented has been invented." Legend has it that U.S. Patent Commissioner Charles Duell wrote that in a letter to President William McKinley in 1899.

Conventional wisdom also says that he didn't really say it--but it in any case, it's a good thing the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office didn't shut down back then. Countless inventors and businesses have spent the past 120 years flooding it with filings covering bright ideas they want to protect, and there's no sign the barrage will ever let up.

Some of these filings are for products and ideas that really do change everything. Others, however, are notable in part or in whole because of the headaches that they've caused for other inventors and businesses--even though the patents and trademarks in question sometimes cover things you might think were unprotectable, or already in existence. (Did you know it's possible to trademark a color? Me neither, until my editor told me.)

Herewith, nine peculiar examples of patents and trademarks in action in the tech world. And if you want some background reading, check out this guide to patents and this one on on trademarks.

We Can't Work It Out

In 1978, fledgling computer company Apple computer was two years old, and already facing trademark trouble over its very corporate identity. Worse, the troublemakers were a quartet of Steve Jobs' heroes: The Beatles.

The Fab Four, who had formed Apple Corps Ltd. in 1968 to oversee their business affairs, thought that Apple Computer's name and activities were uncomfortably similar to those of their company. So Apple Corps sued Apple Computer. It settled in 1981, then sued again in 1986 as the music capabilities of Apple's computers became more sophisticated. That suit was settled in 1991.

Then Apple Corps sued again in 2003, as Apple entered the music business in a big way with the iTunes Music Store. In 2007, the two companies made peace once more--this time, in an apparently permanent fashion that is said to have made the surviving Beatles even more prosperous.

Of course, the only sign of a harmonious Beatle-Apple relationship most music lovers and/or computer nerds care about is still nowhere to be seen: a deal to put the lads' albums on the iTunes Store.

Mac Attack

McIntosh Ad
Early Apple employee Jef Raskin had a favorite apple. It was the McIntosh--but since that was also the name of a manufacturer of high-end audio equipment, he bestowed the new computer he was spearheading with an intentionally misspelled code name: Macintosh. He figured that would sidestep any trademark problems.

He figured wrong: The McIntosh loudspeaker folks weren't thrilled with the prospect of a similar-sounding computer, despite a letter Steve Jobs wrote them: "We have become very attached to the name Macintosh. Much like one's own child, our product has developed a very definite personality." According to Apple historian Owen Linzmayer, the computer company and the audio company struck a licensing deal in March 1983; early Mac ads include a credit for McIntosh Labs.

In 1986, Apple paid McIntosh a fee--how much remains a secret to this day--for permanent rights to the name "Macintosh." Twenty-three years later, the computers and the fancy audio gear continue to coexist.

Next: The Might 1-Click and Droids

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