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Apple's Done This Before. Can It Do It Again?

By Evan Niu, CFA - Apr 3, 2013 at 8:00PM

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When it comes to hijacking legally owned trademarks, Apple's new CEO Tim Cook may be less willing to do so compared to Steve Jobs. Apple's rumored device may not be called "iTV" after all.

There have been quite a few things that only Apple (AAPL 4.01%) could have successfully pulled off. The ability to commandeer legally owned trademarks is on that list. Apple's done it before -- can it do it again?

The most prominent example of this was when Apple repurposed two of networking giant Cisco Systems' (CSCO 0.95%) trademarks and made them its own. Both iPhone and iOS were once the property of Cisco. Apple famously unveiled the original iPhone in January 2007 without obtaining the rights to the "iPhone" trademark in advance, settling with the networker months later after the fact. However, Apple did ink a deal with the company over its use of IOS when it rebranded its mobile operating system platform in 2010.

The broader media has now taken to casually referring to the long-rumored Apple TV set as the "iTV," even though iTV is also an existing recognized trademark that's owned by British commercial television network ITV (uppercase "I"). In fact, when Apple first unveiled its first-generation set-top box for local streaming, it originally referred to the device as the iTV. Steve Jobs pointed out that this was just an internal code name, presumably due to some trademark issues.

Original Apple "iTV" unveiling. Source: Engadget.

A few months later, when Apple dropped the "Computer" from its name and unveiled the iPhone, it rebranded the device as Apple TV. In 2010, the company was rumored to be exploring a rebrand to iTV again, which caused a ruckus with the Brits. ITV Network said it has a very strong brand and has numerous registered trademarks, with exec Mike Large saying the network has "vigorously defended" its IP in the past.

There's also the U.S.-based iTV Entertainment, which pre-emptively issued a press release roughly a year ago, warning Apple not to infringe on its trademark. iTV Entertainment noted that the ITV network appeared to have abandoned its U.S. trademark application in January 2012, and that ITV exec Paul Dale tweeted about being at Apple's Europe headquarters.

iTV Entertainment hints that ITV Network may have inked a deal with Apple, saying the network "conspicuously" reversed its position and now denies it would take action against the Mac maker. iTV Entertainment is looking to finagle a license agreement.

Barring any official deals, Apple is unlikely to try to commandeer any trademarks these days. This is because Tim Cook is known to be a much more conservative leader that tends to play by the book, while Jobs was accustomed to simply willing things into existence. No other tech executive has been known to launch a breakthrough product that directly encroaches on legally owned trademarks, only to sort out the details later.

That's just another way that Tim Cook differs from Steve Jobs. The only way that the rumored set is called the "iTV" will be if Cook scores the rights first.

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