Did Apple Just Become a Patent Troll?

Some days, watching the tech news cycle is like watching a soap opera. The Web is abuzz today with news that, on Friday, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) sued Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) for violating its trademark on the term "app store." Amazon's using the term to describe the digital market for Android apps that it's launching today.

On the surface, the suit seems loony. Don't we all use "app" and "app store" as generic terms? With each, we're describing broad concepts. Sure, iPhones have apps --  but so does every other smartphone out there. And where do we get these apps? App stores, of course. Even Steve Jobs says so. Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) has filed a petition to invalidate Apple's app store patent precisely because of our propensity to use these terms in common speech.

But don't be too quick to burn your mock turtleneck in protest. Amazon.com may have opened this particular can of worms when it patented "one-click checkout" more than a decade ago. Apple has since licensed the term for use in its own digital stores.

Now their roles are reversed. Apple contacted Amazon three times, demanding that the retailer stop using "app store" in describing its efforts to sell mobile software, Bloomberg reports. Apparently, the folks at Cupertino received no "substantive" response.

As a result, Apple alleges that Amazon.com unlawfully recruited software developers by trading on the "app store" moniker. Really? As if coders didn't already know that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) was working overtime to get more of them writing Android software? Claims don't come more ridiculous than that.

Yet the broader point remains. If Amazon can patent an ordering system and naming scheme, why can't Apple patent an app store? Pot, meet kettle.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think about Apple's lawsuit, Amazon.com's Android app store (sorry, Apple), and the state of patent and trademark filings using the comments box below.

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  • Report this Comment On March 22, 2011, at 11:21 AM, jsl4980 wrote:

    I don't want to be overly picky, but you're mixing patent laws and trademark laws which are quite different. Amazon patented the invention of one-click ordering which means they were granted a monopoly on implementing one-click ordering schemes. Patents are supposed to protect research and development investments by companies.

    Apple trademarked the phrase "Appstore" and/or "App store." Trademark law is designed to protect customers from confusion. Apple is claiming that if other companies use that term or similar ones then customers will be confused or tricked into thinking that they're purchasing products from Apple.

    You are correct that companies are stretching and abusing existing laws more often. I'm just picky over lumping trademarks, patents, and even copyrights into the same category when they're quite different.

  • Report this Comment On March 22, 2011, at 11:22 AM, SkippyJohnJones wrote:

    "App Store" is like Kleenex or Band-Aid. Everybody knows what facial tissues and adhesive bandages are, but the trademarked name has commercial significance. Apple has spent hundreds of millions in promoting the availability of "apps" on its iOS family of devices, and has been legally awarded the trademark.

    I don't understand why Amazon wouldn't desist on Apple's request if they feel that the term is a generic descriptor; they should have come up with a unique name to promote their wonderful new service. But obviously felt that they needed to use "AppStore" to grab market attention, or they woudn't have risked litigation. Their insistence on using the trademarked term proves the commercial value of "App Store." For the record, here are a few acceptable variants that could be combined to avoid the trademark in any way besides "app store" (based on a simple thesaurus query):

    Application, App, Software, Program

    +

    Market, Shop, Place, Store, Bazaar, Emporium, Mart, Showroom, outlet, stand

    I think Amazon was counting on a lawsuit to draw attention to their new service. They can change the name tomorrow, but articles like this one give more publicity than Amazon could hope to gain on their own.

  • Report this Comment On March 22, 2011, at 12:39 PM, TMFTheDoctor wrote:

    Trademarking "app store" is like trademarking "grocery store". I suppose Apple picked the name originally because it's simple and highly intuitive, much like their products, but unlike their products, it's not particularly original. And frankly I felt the same way about the absurdity of patenting one-click ordering ten years ago.

  • Report this Comment On March 22, 2011, at 12:48 PM, mtf00l wrote:

    Follow the money...

  • Report this Comment On March 22, 2011, at 4:32 PM, titus77 wrote:

    To clarify, Apple trademarked "APP STORE" in 2010 (notice the <space> between APP and STORE).

    There is also a trademark for "APPSTORE" (no <space> between APP and STORE) that was filed for in 1998, granted in 1999 and abandoned in 2001.

    If you look at Amazon's website, all of their references are to an APPSTORE (no <space>), so they are not violating Apple's trademark, but using a term that is part of the public domain.

    If Apple wanted to trademark something, they should have not used a term that was so close to an abandoned trademark.

  • Report this Comment On March 22, 2011, at 7:08 PM, RobertC314 wrote:

    If What jsl4980 says is accurate then it seems that there isn't really a parallel between the 2. The "One-Click Checkout" was patenting the action of checking out with 1 click; the name is secondary. The "app store" on the other hand is just the name - Apple is not contending that Amazon cannot sell mobile applications through an online store, just that they can't brand it as "app store".

    Furthermore, if foolish442 is also accurate then it seems Apple has shot themselves in the foot. Trademarks, unlike patents, are only patented as long as you use them. If Apple has previously trademarked then abandoned "Appstore" in favor of "App store" then they have (a) admitted there is a difference between and (b) given up rights to the former.

    I think that, far from being irrational, Amazon has a valid point. As Tim points out, there is a financial benefit to having a catchy name, and Apple has already shot itself in the foot as far as defending this one goes. Expect Amazon to win this fight... and seeing how touchy a subject this might be for a while next time you might want to refer to them properly as Apple's "App Store" and Amazon's "Appstore" unless TMF wants both companies breathing down their neck :)

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