Coverage of the Apple and Cisco iPhone trademark battle

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 17 January 2007

Yesterday I wrote about the accessibility issue with Apple's newly announced "iPhone" product - and my concern that should many devices end up adopting their approach of a mobile phone without a tactile interface, usability for the large section of the population with some visual or motor impairment might be a problem. I also looked at the very vocal response of a section of the Apple fan community to the very suggestion that this might even be a question worth asking.

The other issue that has caught my eye has been the way that the trademark dispute with Cisco has been covered. Cisco claim that they have had the historical rights to the name iPhone for over ten years, which they acquired via a company purchase in 2000.

In the tech world when there is money or brand reputation at stake, it doesn't usually take much to get the lawyers involved. Microsoft were once sued by someone who claimed that their "PocketPC" brand infringed the rights of their own novelty pocket poker chips, and questions were raised about whether the Vista brand would cause confusion with VistA, and this seemed to result in negative publicity for Microsoft.

On the face of it, given that Cisco have registrations of the name going back a decade, and have a product already in the same niche telecomms market with the same name, you'd think that - caveat IANAL - they had a good claim to the name. However, that, it seems, in the eyes of some Apple fans at least, should not be allowed to stand in the way of the Apple iBrand juggernaut.

On GigaOm people were confident that Apple would prevail

Charlie Sierra: Jobs/Apple will let the market decide and thus Cisco will lose.

Michael Specht10: The lawyers will be busy on this one over the next few days, in the end I suspect Apple will win, they already "own" the brand even without the legal backing.

Yep, that's right. Even though Cisco have a product on the market with a name they've already held for several years, Apple "own" the brand regardless of the legal situation. Interestingly, back in December before Apple's device was shown to the public, some commentators doubted their claims to the name, and the products chances, faced with the competition in the existing handset market.

"My Take: The hyper-hyped Apple iPhone is long in the making and when it finally hits the market it might suffer the same reception as the movie Snakes on a Plane - the film that generated huge buzz on the Internet but peaked too early. I have no doubt that the Apple iPhone will be a success on some levels, but it will not be the defining device of an generation, like the iPod. Companies like Nokia, Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson have too much riding on the success of their next generation handsets to risk having the music cell phone category slip away to a relative newcomer like Apple.

The Cisco iPhone, however, does not have the same level of buzz. In fact it has almost no buzz at all. However, it has huge potential. The Cisco iPhone allows users to make and receive Skype calls without having to turn on and use their computers. The iPhone WIP320 comes loaded with Skype software and is compatible with Wi-Fi so that users can make and receive calls on the phone from anywhere they can connect to a wireless access point. According to PC World, the WIP320 costs $199.99 and the CIT400 retails for $179.99. Both are available in North America and are expected to become available in Europe, Asia and Latin America during the first quarter next year.

Which will ultimately win the fight over the name iPhone and be the bigger commercial success? My bet is on Cisco."

That view wasn't cutting much ice with the readers over at Mac News Online. They published a handy comparison chart of the two phones claiming to be called the "iPhone".

20070117_iphone-comparison.jpg
"As everyone knows by now, Apple recently released its much anticipated iPod/phone/PDA convergence device, the iPhone, and while the feature set blew many away, some were amazed for a different reason. The name. Cisco Systems had previously announced a shipping product in December under the same name, a line of WiFi VoIP phones. So we got to thinking, how do these products stack up? Which product deserves to wear the title of TRUE iPhone?"

The answer was pretty obvious for their readers - this kind of comment was typical of the response:

"Well know [sic] wonder Cisco is suing Apple. They're going to get hardly any money with that poor phone"

Only a couple of people dared post anything that ran counter to the consensus that Apple deserved to be able to use the iPhone name:

Jakub Says: Which product deserves to wear the title of TRUE iPhone? So you’re saying, lets throw out all trademark laws because its apple, and they have a better product?

Julio Nobrega Says: If I understood what you're saying, if another company releases a phone better than Apple's, they can name it iPhone?

You have to admire Apple though. I wonder if you can imagine any other large computer, consumer electronics or entertainment company (Microsoft / Yahoo! / Virgin / Sony / BBC / AOL / you name it) would be able to get good PR with a high-profile product launch that included locking customers into their own DRM format, and didn't allow any 3rd party software or applications to be used on their hardware? And had obvious potential accesibility issues? And was using some retrograde technology that gave it a disadvantage in a set of major potential markets (2.5G rather than 3G)? And also used the same name as a competing product in the same field? I thought not.

2 Comments

The interesting point in this argument, to me, is not whether Cisco or Apple should be allowed to use the iPhone name, but whether either company should be allowed to use it exclusively.

'iPhone' is a fairly generic name (not too dissimilar to e-mail), and allowing all such names to be trademarked and owned and protected, regardless, strikes me as being absurdly restrictive.

On the other hand, the 'passing off' laws are more aimed at protecting the consumer. Here we can ask, is Apple unfairly passing off the Apple iPhone as the Cisco iPhone? The answer, surely, is no - the phones look different, have different functions, and are both branded strongly enough to be clearly distinguishable from each other.

Conclusion? Both companies should be allowed to use the name. Of course, lawyers, and courts, there to protect trademark laws might disagree, but that would surely be the best outcome for the consumer?

I can't see how Apple could win this in court. Cisco clearly have ownership of the name.

If Google couldn't manage to use "gmail" as a name in the UK, how can Apple hope to use iPhone? It seems like the same argument...

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