A short history of Apple's aggressive legal tactics

The investigation into the missing iPhone is only the most recent example of Apple taking a more muscular legal approach.

Apple legal iPhone
Gizmodo buying an unreleased iPhone prototype and publishing the photos touched off a criminal probe by local authorities. Gizmodo/Screenshot by CNET

The missing iPhone 4G purchased and publicized by Gizmodo last week has developed into a legal soap opera taking some rather dramatic turns. The story line has involved police breaking down the door of a blogger, his computers being seized , and the local authorities tracking down the people who found and sold it.

We also know that Apple reported the phone missing to the local authorities, who then initiated a criminal probe, both into the person who sold the device, revealed by Wired.com Thursday as 21-year-old Brian J. Hogan, and the party that purchased the prototype iPhone for $5,000, Gizmodo. Hogan took the phone left by Apple engineer Gray Powell at a Bay Area bar in March. CNET reported Thursday that he was helped with finding a buyer by 27-year-old college student Sage Robert Wallower .

Apple has officially remained silent on the topic. Gizmodo published a letter from Apple's chief lawyer sent to the site requesting the return of the phone , but Apple has not filed any civil complaint. Still, it's easy to assume there's a lot of backroom maneuvering happening, much of which likely still has to play out.

Though the case is unusual in many ways, it's hardly the first time Apple has been involved in complicated legal proceedings. Apple has taken to the courts often over the past two decades to defend its copyrights, protect its trade secrets, and even ferret out employees leaking information to the press. Here are some of the most pertinent examples:

March 2010 - Apple v. HTC
Apple went on the offensive last month when it charged phone maker HTC with copying several of its mobile phone technologies. Though HTC is the maker of smartphones like the Eris and Nexus One, the lawsuit is assumed by many to be a thinly veiled shot at Google, which makes the Android operating system that runs on those phones. When Apple filed the legal complaint, CEO Steve Jobs was quoted as saying, "We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We've decided to do something about it. We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."

The case has only just begun, but the final outcome isn't necessarily what matters. Just the idea that Apple might sue could give handset makers pause about working with Google's Android OS.

July 2008 - Apple v. Psystar
Though Apple waited three months after Florida-based Psystar began selling its own non-Mac computers with Mac OS X installed, it was obvious Apple wasn't going to let this one slide. Apple eventually pounced, accusing Psystar of breaking Apple's Mac OS X user license agreement, which allows the software to be installed only on Apple-branded machinery, along with copyright infringement, induced copyright infringement, and trademark infringement. Apple prevailed when a judge ruled that Psystar violated Apple's exclusive reproduction right, distribution right, and right to create derivative works, and ordered the company to immediately stop selling its Mac clones. As part of a settlement agreement, Psystar also agreed to pay Apple $2.65 million in damages.

2005 - Apple v. the bloggers
The situation most closely resembling the current Gizmodo saga, at least in terms of the object of Apple's wrath, was the Think Secret case. The rumor blog was sued by Apple in 2005 for trade secret violations after it published information about upcoming Apple hardware and software products that later came to fruition, including an updated iLife software suite and the Mac mini desktop. After two years, the two parties settled, but Think Secret's part of the agreement was that it would shut down the site . The rumor site went offline in late 2007.

In a separate case just a month prior, Apple sued unnamed defendants (Apple v. Does) after several Apple blogs published leaked information about other unreleased products. Apple wanted to subpoena three rumor sites to find out which employee leaked the information to them. A lower court granted Apple the right to do so, calling the publishing of unreleased/stolen trade secrets akin to being "a criminal fence." A host of news organizations filed briefs supporting the bloggers and saying they should have the same rights to protect their sources as journalists.

The case eventually went to an appellate court, which struck down the lower court judge's decision and ordered him to grant the sites a protective order. The judges said that the bloggers' status as journalists, along with Apple's meager attempts to investigate the leak internally and exhaust other sources of information, justified granting the order.

Summer 1999 -- Apple v. iMac rip-offs
Between July and August 1999, Apple went on the offensive against iMac lookalikes. The company sued Daewoo, E-machines, and Sotec over desktops that resembled its colorful all-in-one machine a little too closely. Apple's litigation against the companies alleged violations of trade dress, which refers to the distinctive style or look of a product. Apple argued that the all-in-one systems from its competitors were too similar to the iMac in design and would cause confusion among Apple customers. Apple eventually prevailed, though it wasn't a given that they would at the time. Historically, courts had not extended trademark protection to a product's design. But at the time they were just beginning to grant trademark protection to "stylized" items on the grounds that novel industrial design can communicate a distinctive idea or image.

1994 - Apple v. Intel, Microsoft, San Francisco Canyon Company
Apple wasn't amused when a company it hired to build QuickTime began working with Microsoft and Intel on a Windows video technology called Display Control Interface. Apple sued all three companies. It accused San Francisco Canyon Company of using Apple's code in the Microsoft product and Microsoft and Intel of knowingly helping the software contractor steal thousands of lines of code developed for Apple. Microsoft ended up releasing its Video application sans the alleged QuickTime code.

The issue was finally put to rest in 1997 as part of a wide-ranging settlement deal with Microsoft: all lawsuits were dropped, Internet Explorer became the default browser for Macs, and Microsoft agreed to buy $150 million shares of Apple stock and continue developing Office, IE, and other Mac tools for five more years.

1988 -- Apple v. Microsoft and HP
The most famous Mac v. Windows battle is also the most infamous Apple-related litigation. Apple tried to sue Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard to stop them from using graphical user interface elements that looked a lot like those in Apple's Lisa and Mac OS. Apple in this case, did not prevail. The court ruled that the copyright law at the time did not allow patent protection for "the idea of a graphical user interface, or the idea of a desktop metaphor."

To confuse matters even further, in the middle of that case, Xerox decided to sue Apple for the same thing, alleging that Apple's interface was too closely based on an unlicensed Xerox graphical user interface. That lawsuit was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired. Apple's suit against Microsoft and HP was almost entirely a failure. All of the claims were dismissed with the exception of one: the court ruled that the trash can and folder icons from HP's software did infringe. Apple did appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court declined to hear the case.

1982 - Apple v. Franklin Computer
Apple took issue with the Franklin Ace 100 when it arrived in 1982 because it felt the operating system was copied from the Apple II. Apple sued Franklin, which was upfront about the fact that it had filched Apple's code. But the company argued that it had done so for good reason: Franklin wanted to maintain its product's compatibility with Apple software. And because Apple's software was written in object code and not in a form readable to humans it didn't have any copyright notices attached, they didn't see a problem.

The first court that heard the case sided with Franklin. Apple appealed the ruling and a higher court set a new important precedent with its ruling: operating systems, even though written in a non-human language, were protected by copyright. In 1988, Apple was able to force Franklin to stop selling the Franklin Ace 100.

 

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