August 19, 1999 6:30 PM PDT

Apple sues eMachines for iMac look-alike

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August 5, 1999
Apple Computer has filed a second iMac-inspired lawsuit, this time against low-cost PC maker eMachines, alleging that the company has wrongfully pilfered the design and feel of its popular translucent computer.

The complaint, filed in U.S. Federal Court in San Jose, California., seeks to enjoin eMachines from distributing its eOne computer, introduced August 5.

The eOne is based on different internal technology than the iMac, but it comes with a built-in monitor and clear blue plastic accents, similar conceptually to Apple's computer. The suit also asks for actual and punitive damages.

This is the second suit Apple has filed against a PC manufacturer for allegedly improperly appropriating the design of the iMac. Apple also filed a similar suit against Future Power and Daewoo in July.

A major issue in both cases is the concept of "trade dress," that is, the distinctive style or look of a product. Historically, the courts did not extend trademark protection to design. A desk or a pencil, for instance, could not get trademark protection. Design, courts held, was a result of function and could not be protected by trademark.

However, courts have begun to grant trademark protection to "stylized" items on the grounds that novel industrial design can communicate a distinctive idea or image. Recently, for example, a court held that a Gucci watch in the shape of a large "G" could be protected by trademark, because it communicated an idea and was not merely shaped that way for utilitarian purposes. It's an evolving area of the law, lawyers say.

Apple's theory is that trade design protection exists. These companies, after all, could have chosen a number of different styles for their computers.

"There is an unlimited number of original designs that eMachines could have created for their computers, but instead they chose to copy Apple's designs," said Steve Jobs, Apple's interim CEO. "We've invested a lot of money and effort to create and market our award-winning computer designs, and we intend to protect them under the law."

On the other hand similarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Future Power's new PC looks almost identical to the iMac. The eOne from eMachines, however, clearly differs. The system is taller, and less teardrop-shaped, than the iMac. The blue used in the casing is also deeper than the aqua blue of the iMac and is used to accent the computer differently. On the iMac, the entire back of the computer is blue. The eOne has a white band that travels around the computer.

Questions in the dispute will likely be whether the iMac has a legally protected trade dress and whether either company violated that right.

 

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