I bet you think you know what an iPad looks like. If asked, you'd probably describe it as a small flat tablet computer boasting a 9.7-inch display and sporting an Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) logo on its back. Wrong.
It actually looks a lot like an entirely different Apple product: the original iMac.
The year was 1998, shortly after Steve Jobs' return to Apple. One of the first eye-catching products that Jobs and design guru Jony Ive came up with was the iMac all-in-one, which continues to be among Apple's primary product lines.
Having competitors copy Apple's innovative design is hardly a new phenomenon, and a small Chinese computer maker named Proview took note of the iMac's style and decided to respond in kind, even down to the carrying handle on top of the machine. Thus, the "Internet Personal Access Device," or iPAD, was born.
The company has said it spent $30 million developing the iPAD and produced between 10,000 and 20,000 units between 1998 and 2009, when Apple bought the trademark from a Proview subsidiary through a shell company for roughly $55,000 in anticipation of its own iPad tablet. Proview is now disputing the trademark's ownership and wants even more dollars, with demands as high as $2 billion, or more than 36,000 times the original amount.
Proview is in bankruptcy, hoping that scoring some of the Mac maker's money will help it pay off some of its creditors. It alleges that the subsidiary that sold the moniker didn't have the full rights to the name.
The company is going for the jugular with its attack, requesting a ban of imports and exports across China's borders, which has the potential to cripple Apple's supply chain as iPads are assembled in the country. Various courts are going back and forth, with some siding with Apple while others have Proview's back; much of this case is still up in the air, complete with appeals on both sides.
The iPad isn't the only offering to have faced trademark hurdles. The iPhone and iOS names, which are now largely associated with Cupertino, originally belonged to Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO ) . The two tech giants settled long ago over both names. It also bought the FaceTime name for its video-calling service from a security software company of the same name, which has since changed its name to Actiance.
This iPAD trademark dispute isn't Apple's first, and it certainly won't be its last.
Add Apple to your Watchlist to see how this trademark dispute pans out. While you're at it, don't forget to check out this new special free report on a handful of component suppliers that are cashing in on the iPhone's rise.