November 8, 1999 10:55 AM PST

Apple wins round in iMac knockoff suit

Apple has won the first round in a U.S. court in its fight to keep iMac knockoffs from hitting store shelves this holiday season.

A judge in the U.S. Federal Court in San Jose plans to issue later this week a preliminary injunction barring Future Power and its Korean partner, Daewoo Group, from selling its E-Power computer because the design too closely resembles Apple's popular iMac computer.

U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel granted Apple's motion for a preliminary injunction, which was heard on October 25, 1999. Apple announced in a press release that it had won the preliminary injunction but declined further comment. Representatives of Future Power could not immediately be reached for comment.

Apple alleged in its suit that the new products look too similar to the iMac, and therefore would create confusion in consumers' minds, presumably resulting in potential lost sales to its competitors. The judge sided with Apple in stating his intention to issue a preliminary injunction.

"The court concludes that Apple is likely to prevail on its argument that the particular combination of shapes, colors, and translucent elements which make up the iMac's trade dress is inherently distinctive," Fogel wrote, according to sources.

The injunction against Future Power and Daewoo could have an impact on a similar lawsuit Apple filed against Emachines.

In September, Apple won a preliminary injunction from a Tokyo District Court barring K.K. Sotec, a Japanese distributor of the eOne, from manufacturing or distributing the PC.

"The bottom line is 'Why make a machine that looks like [the iMac ]?," said Richard Groos, shareholder in Arnold White Durkee, a law firm specializing in intellectual property issues such as patent and copyright litigation. "There is no answer other than [Apple] was out first, their product gained a lot of recognition, and you're trying to take a ride on it," he said.

In some instances the courts have let competing products--usually generic items such as pain relievers--mimic the trade dress of their brand name counterparts to suggest that they are comparable. But in the case of more expensive products, where confusion could result in more substantial harm, they are getting more vociferous against letting these practices continue, he said.

"Companies are paying a lot more attention to trade dress as another intellectual property right to focus on," especially as companies invest more and more dollars in branding activities, said Groos.

After first filing a suit against Future Power in July, the company sued Emachines based on the same "trade dress" arguments.

Emachines released an all-in-one computer with blue accents which appears to have taken some tips from the iMac. However, the Emachines system does not look as similar to the Apple computer as much as the Future Power system does.

Trade dress is the distinctive style or look of a product. Historically, the courts have not extended trademark protection to a product's design. More recently, though, courts have begun to grant trademark protection to "stylized" items on the grounds that novel industrial design can communicate a distinctive idea or image.

Fogel wrote in relation to the Future Power suit that even though the iMac is a relatively new product, Apple presented survey evidence that the company has "established an association between the trade dress and Apple in the minds of the public."

Because of this linkage, the release of the E-Power is likely to cause customer confusion, he wrote.

 

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