Apple granted a trademark over physical layout of the Apple Stores

Fifth Avenue Apple Store (Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Trademarks can protect more than just a brand name or logo. Chocolate maker Cadbury successfully trademarked the shade of purple associated with the brand, while Coca-Cola famously managed to secure a trademark over its iconic Coke bottle. But, in typical ‘think different’ fashion, Apple has now gone a step further, and legitimately trademarked the physical layout of its popular retail stores.

Although not the first instance of a shop interior being granted a trademark, the news has attracted a lot of attention. The U.S Patent and Trademark Office twice rejected Apple’s efforts to trademark the store layout, before finally accepting a “distinctive design and layout” after additional documentation was submitted.

The stores are known for their sleek and uncluttered look. Apple reportedly spends an average of $10 million launching each individual store, usually located in carefully selected upmarket districts. Attention to detail is taken very seriously- the sandstone flooring is imported directly from Florence, while the late Steve Jobs even patented the minimalist glass staircases himself.

Apple’s new trademark covers the trade dress, and overall visual appearance of its stores in the United States. This encompasses elements of the store design, such as the “rectangular tables arranged in a line in the middle of the store” and “multi-tiered shelving along the rear walls”.

With so much investment to ensure the overall quality and unique identity of the Apple Stores, one can understand why Apple is so keen to prevent anyone else mimicking its stores. Competitor Microsoft recently launched its own retail store strategy, while Google has also unveiled plans to open retail stores in California. In fact, Microsoft reportedly acquired a trademark for its own stores in 2011, which covered “a retail store with four curved tabletops at the front and rear side walls and a rectangular band displaying changing video images on the walls”.

Another obvious reason behind Apple’s move is to protect itself against the cheap ‘copy-cat’ stores popping up in China. These stores are deliberately conceived to fool customers into thinking the traders are selling official Apple merchandise. Indeed, many of their customers may have never set foot in an authentic Apple store, and would be unaware they were buying false products.

While the decision clearly benefits Apple, some commentators question if it is appropriate to grant companies trademarks over the layouts of retail stores. Forbes  has criticized Apple’s ability to prevent competitors using in-store rectangular tables, and argues that in the fight against Asian rip-offs, the law of passing-off is sufficient to defeat copy-cat merchants, without resorting to trademarking physical spaces.

But while this argument is valid, proving a passing-off claim is often much harder and more expensive without an established and watertight trademark. With an army of handsomely paid corporate lawyers, Apple is leaving nothing to chance.

Many business owners and company directors are calling for legal reform, to further assist businesses to protect their carefully nurtured brands without resorting to costly litigation. However, some fear that companies would soon monopolise combinations of fairly simple features. IPKat points out, that UK law is far stricter when granting trade dress, as the test requires a mark to be “truly distinctive”.

For the Apple Store layout to acquire a trademark or trade dress in the UK, Apple would have to demonstrate the stores were so unique and distinctive that the public would easily associate the store designs with the Apple brand. Clearly, for most businesses, attempts to secure a trade dress will not be viable. And as the law currently stands, it is difficult to protect distinctive features of a shop layout without engaging the expensive litigation route.

In the high street, distinctive stores can be beneficial. Customers are able to immediately identify store branding and associate particular shopping experiences with particular stores. Therefore, as branding becomes increasingly important, the expansion of legal protection over unique in- shop experiences is likely to be sought out. But until it becomes easier to protect others from copying the interiors of a retail business, the easiest option for most business will be to rely on printing their trademarked brand names or logos on various surfaces throughout the store to act as identifiers which are protected against copying.

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