Apple in the courtroom: 25 years of defending the crown jewels

After adapting concepts from Xerox PARC to create the Lisa and Macintosh computers, Apple has spent decades trying to protect its user interface software and its hardware designs via litigation.

Dan Farber
5 min read

The Apple-Samsung courtroom tussle is just the latest in a long line of legal battles for Apple. The company has an established history of taking competitors to court to protect the look and feel of its products. It's part of Apple's DNA. Steve Jobs always thought of Apple products as unique works of functional art with aesthetic virtues, wrapped in patents, copyrights, and licenses. He wasn't about to let anyone copy the crown jewels -- the user interface and hardware design concepts -- embodied in his creations. 

The Macintosh, introduced in January 1984, was his first true masterpiece, a pint-size version of Apple's Lisa workstation, which was the first Apple product with icons, windows, cut-and-paste, pull-down windows, and a mouse.


But most of the user interface concepts that distinguished the Lisa and Macintosh didn't come from Apple. In 1979, Jobs got a glimpse of what was under development at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). He liberally helped himself to PARC's technological treasures in crafting the masterpiece issued during his first term at Apple.

The Xerox Star, introduced in 1981, pioneered many of the graphical user interface ideas -- the mouse, bit-mapped graphics, windows, and icons -- that Apple adopted for the Lisa and Macintosh. DigiBarn

Apple introduced the $9,995 Lisa workstation, based on the core user interface ideas from Xerox PARC, in January of 1983.

Apple's Lisa computer didn't sell well, but it led the way for the Macintosh. Steve Jobs hired several Xerox PARC engineers to help turn the ideas generated at the research lab into a commercial success at Apple. Apple

Part of Jobs' artistry was seeing in found objects what others could not see. Where Xerox's management was unable to see how to commercialize its amazing technology, Jobs immediately understood that he had found the key to Apple's future, and the future of computing.

"Basically, they were 'copier heads' that just had no clue about a computer and what it could do" Jobs said in an interview in the 1990s. "They just grabbed defeat from the greatest victory in the computer industry. Xerox could have owned the entire computer industry today." 

Xerox never made a penny from Apple other than via a business transaction. Apple sold Xerox some pre-IPO stock shares in exchange for getting its peek at PARC technology, but it never received a license for it. In 1989, Xerox filed a $150 million suit against Apple, alleging that the Lisa and Macintosh misrepresented Xerox copyrights, but the company was unsuccessful in winning a favorable decision.

Jobs left Apple in September of 1985, pushed out by the board of directors and CEO John Sculley. However, Jobs' view of the sanctity of the Macintosh user interface was embraced by his successors. The graphical user interface greatly differentiated Apple in the marketplace, and protecting that positioning was a business imperative. As Microsoft and others followed Apple's lead in shifting from the character-based screen to the graphical user interface, the lawsuits ensued.

Microsoft introduced its Windows user interface in November 1985. At that time, Apple granted Microsoft a license for some of the Apple user interface elements. It was part of the deal-making to ensure that Microsoft would continue to support the Macintosh with its productivity software, such as Microsoft Word. In addition, the first iteration of Windows was so inferior to the Macintosh operating system look and feel, it didn't present a huge threat.

With Windows 2.0 and then 3.0, Microsoft was offering a more competitive alternative to the Macintosh operating system. Apple sued Microsoft, as well as Hewlett-Packard for its NewWave interface, in March of 1988, claiming the two companies violated the "look and feel" of the Macintosh, listing 189 similarities. The court ruled that only 10 items were in dispute, citing the 1985 licensing agreement between Apple and Microsoft. Apple maintained that the license for its technology was limited to Windows 1.0.

In 1991, Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Apple's borrowing of ideas from Xerox PARC and others for the Macintosh "does not deprive Apple's works of their presumption of copyright validity." However, he ruled that the 1985 license didn't cover the whole concept, the totality of the Macintosh look and feel, which was Apple's primary argument in its case against Microsoft and HP.

As the case rolled on, Apple asked for $5.5 billion in damages, but in a 1992 ruling, Judge Walker declared that the 10 elements remaining in the suit could not be copyrighted. In June 1993, he issued a summary judgment in favor of Microsoft and HP.

Microsoft turned its MS-DOS operating system graphical with Windows 1.0 in 1985, signing a licensing agreement with Apple. Microsoft

Apple determined that Windows 2.0 and 3.0 were not part of the licensing agreement signed for Windows 1.0 and sued Microsoft. Microsoft

Apple was more successful in suing Digital Research in 1985, after the company introduced its GEM user interface for PCs. Rather than hiring a phalanx of lawyers, Digital Research decided to change some of the elements, such as the design of the trash can icon, to avoid the courtroom.

Digital Research's GEM graphical user interface was available for the CP/M and DOS operating systems. DRI

During his exile from Apple, Jobs founded NeXT, Inc. to develop workstations for the education and business markets. He further developed graphical user interface concepts, introducing the first NeXT computer in 1988. In December 1996, Apple acquired NeXT, preceding Jobs' return a few months later to the company he co-founded.

Steve Jobs sold NeXT to Apple in 1996. Jobs became interim CEO of Apple in September 1997. NeXT

On his return to Apple, Jobs defended his turf once again. In 1999, for example, Apple sued eMachines, which was selling a desktop computer that closely resembled the iMac.

"There is an unlimited number of original designs that eMachines could have created for their computers, but instead they chose to copy Apple's designs," Jobs said in a statement. "We've invested a lot of money and effort to create and market our award-winning computer designs, and we intend to protect them under the law."

Apple was successful in procuring a worldwide injunction preventing eMachines from manufacturing, distributing, selling, or promoting its iMac-like computers.

In 2003, Jobs threatened to sue Sun if it commercialized its Project Looking Glass, a slick graphical interface, according to former Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz. Sun never shipped the product, but Jobs' threat was never a factor in the decision, Schwartz said.

Sun's Project Looking Glass never made it to market, but it apparently got Steve Jobs' attention. Sun

In the post-Jobs era, Apple is embroiled in a number of lawsuits as it tries to protect the other masterpieces of prior art and innovation that have made the company enormously rich and powerful -- the iPhone and the iPad. In the most high-profile suit (see CNET's complete coverage), Apple is suing Samsung for patent violations and "trade dress" -- too closely imitating the iPhone and iPad.

Apple maintains that Samsung's Galaxy phones were expressly built with the iPhone design in mind. CNET

Jobs liked to have it both ways. He abhorred the blatant forgers, who imitated Apple's leading product designs, and he was not above adapting or copying anything that would further his quest to create products that he deemed "insanely great."

He expressed his distaste for Google's Android to his biographer, Walter Isaacson: "I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this."

As in the past, it's up to the courts to determine whether Apple's claims to originality and specific patents can keep its competitors at a safe distance.