Trademarks and patents are a major issue in technology. If you've got a good product name or idea then your first instinct is to protect it.

However, it's also a bit of a minefield. Not only can patents and trademarks cause headaches for other inventors, but they also cover things you might think were unprotectable or already in existence. (Did you know it's possible to trademark a colour? Me neither).

So we've rounded up nine peculiar examples of patents and trademarks in action in the tech world.

We can't work it out

In 1978, fledgling computer company Apple Computers was two years old, and already facing trademark trouble over its very corporate identity. Worse, the troublemakers were a quartet of Steve Jobs' heroes: The Beatles.

The Fab Four, who had formed Apple Corps in 1968 to oversee their business affairs, thought that Apple Computer's name and activities were uncomfortably similar to those of their company.

So Apple Corps sued Apple Computer. It settled in 1981, then sued again in 1986 as the music capabilities of Apple's computers became more sophisticated. That suit was settled in 1991.

Then Apple Corps sued again in 2003, as Apple entered the music business in a big way with the iTunes Music Store.

In 2007, the two companies made peace once more - this time, in an apparently permanent fashion that is said to have made the surviving Beatles even more prosperous.

Of course, the only sign of a harmonious Beatle-Apple relationship most music lovers and/or computer nerds care about is still nowhere to be seen: a deal to put the lads' albums on the iTunes Store.

Mac attack

Early Apple employee Jef Raskin had a favourite apple. It was the McIntosh - but since that was also the name of a manufacturer of high-end audio equipment, he bestowed the new computer he was spearheading with an intentionally misspelled code name: Macintosh. He figured that would sidestep any trademark problems.

He figured wrong: The McIntosh loudspeaker folks weren't thrilled with the prospect of a similar-sounding computer, despite a letter Steve Jobs wrote to them: "We have become very attached to the name Macintosh. Much like one's own child, our product has developed a very definite personality".

According to Apple historian Owen Linzmayer, the computer company and the audio company struck a licensing deal in March 1983; early Mac ads include a credit for McIntosh Labs.

In 1986, Apple paid McIntosh a fee - how much remains a secret to this day - for permanent rights to the name 'Macintosh'. Twenty-three years later, the computers and the fancy audio gear continue to co-exist.

NEXT PAGE: Two clicks good, one click bad

  1. Tech companies can run into problems when it comes to product names
  2. Two clicks good, one click bad
  3.  Over the edge
  4. We just patented podcasting

We look at 9 of the most memorable trademark issues.

Two clicks good, one click bad

It sounds a little like patenting the eight-items-or-less supermarket checkout lane.

But since 1999, has held a patent on e-commerce features that let you buy stuff with a single click.

As a result, the megamerchant's superefficient 1-Click feature remains unique, tempting online shoppers, fattening Amazon's bottom line, and annoying competitors.

Amazon did license the 1-Click concept to Apple for the iTunes Store, but it also took archrival Barnes & Noble to court over its 1-Click-like ‘Express Lane' feature.

For the past decade, critics of the US patent system have frequently brought up 1-Click as an example of a company gaining a legal monopoly on an obvious, pre-existing idea.

Back, in 2001, tech pundit Tim O'Reilly awarded a $10,000 bounty to folks who found prior use of the idea - ranging from a European patent for TV shopping to references in Cheers, Doonesbury, and Star Trek.

Much - but not all - of the patent was overturned in 2007; Amazon is still doing its best to preserve it.

Colour it trademarked

Want to make insulation? If you colour it pink, Owens Corning will get huffy - it's got a trademark on the colour for insulating materials.

Yes, it's possible to trademark a colour, at least as it relates to a particular type of product or business.

The legal precedent was set in the US in a 1995 decision involving two manufacturers of drycleaning goods who squabbled over a particular shade of green-gold.

If you start a wireless phone company, you need to be careful about magenta. That's T-Mobile's signature colour, in heavy use in its logo, its advertising, and even its stores' decor.

The Deutsche Telecom subsidiary has trademarked magenta in its native Germany and gone after other companies that have used the colour there.

Don't cross R2-D2

Let's face it mobile phone names have gotten pretty trite recently. Among the virtues of Motorola's first Android 2.0 phone, is its fun moniker: Droid. It may be an unusual name for a phone, but the company had to seek permission to use it.

George Lucas's Lucasfilm has the term locked up, thanks to trademark filings that date to 1977, the year C-3PO and R2-D2 first graced the screen in Star Wars. (Hey, there have even been droid phones before.)

Lucasfilm trademarked 'Droid' for use in the phone business in October 2009, shortly before the device went on sale; read the fine print in ads for the Droid and Droid Eris and you'll see an acknowledgement that the name is used under license from Lucas.

Seems fair enough: People have called humanesque automatons 'androids' since the 18th century, but George Lucas seems to have coined 'droid' in his Star Wars script a quarter-millennium later.

NEXT PAGE: Over the edge

We look at 9 of the most memorable trademark issues.

Over the edge

California game publisher Edge Games hasn't released a new title in years. But every time any other company comes out with a game with 'Edge' in the name - hoo boy!

Edge has taken or threatened legal action against EA for Mirror's Edge, Namco for Soul Edge, New World Computing for Planet's Edge, and Marvel over several comics with Edge in the name.

Most notoriously, the company engaged in an extended, bizarre trademark scuffle with Mobigame over its iPhone game Edge, which was eventually renamed Edgy - a name EDGE has also claimed is also too close to its trademark.

After Edge went after another iPhone game, Killer Edge Racing, a bunch of iPhone game developers fought back in an effectively tongue-in-cheek manner: they announced plans for such games as FEDGE, Edgeliss, LEDGE Dismount, and Edgeward McEdgington.

Still to be determined: Edge's stance on U2's The Edge and the city of Edgewood, Washington.


Since the 1980s, emoticons have been widely used on the net to express happiness, unhappiness, slyness, shyness, contempt, and just about every other emotion that a human being can feel.

Their predecessors date to the nineteenth century. But that hasn't some from going after emoticon-related patents and catching flak for doing so.

In 2005, Cingular (now AT&T Wireless) filed for a patent that was widely interpreted as claiming exclusive rights to use emoticons on phones.

Some, however, said that it proposed only to patent a special phone key dedicated to producing emoticons.

The same year, Microsoft filed to patent something it called emotiflags - basically emoticons an email writer could use to indicate a message's mood.

It was granted the patent in 2009 - even though Lotus Notes had long sported Mood Stamps, which are...emoticons an email writer can use to indicate a message's mood.

Related offline legal tussle: In 2006, Wal-Mart unsuccessfully tried to trademark the yellow smiley face that's the most iconic emoticon of them all.

The move showed a lot of hubris considering that Worcester, Massachusetts advertising artist Harvey Ball drew the first yellow smiley in 1963.

NEXT PAGE: We just patented podcasting

We look at 9 of the most memorable trademark issues.

Hey, we just patented podcasting!

In July, 2009, a media distribution and tracking company called VoloMedia - formerly known as PodBridge, and before that as AudioFeast - announced that it had been awarded a patent titled 'Method for Providing Episodic Media', in which it outlines a system for distributing audio and video programs across the internet.

Sound a little like podcasting? Well, the company sure thinks it does: It titled its release trumpeting the news 'VoloMedia Awarded US Patent for Podcasting'.

In a blog post, VoloMedia's Mergesh Navar said "we would expect new entrants into the podcasting arena to have a collaborative relationship with VoloMedia, just as do many of the current players".

That sounded a little like a threat against would-be podcasters.

In a second post, Navar said that VoloMedia isn't a company that has "neither products nor technologies, but just obtain(s) and hold(s) patents to pursue infringing behavior through litigation".

Which sounds a little less alarming - except that Navar isn't saying that VoloMedia won't sue. He's just saying that the company doesn't exist only to sue other companies.

VoloMedia may have patented podcasting, but did it invent it? Check out this 2001 blog post by RSS creator Dave Winer.

It predates VoloMedia's first filing by more than two years, and seems to describe podcasting much as we have come to know it.

Mouse trouble

When Apple released a mouse called the Mighty Mouse in 2005, it carefully gained permission from Viacom, current owner of Mighty Mouse, the animated rodent who's been fighting crime since 1942.

Viacom's ownership of the trademark was acknowledged in Apple ads. But Apple didn't get the blessings of Man & Machine, a small peripheral company that began selling a Mighty Mouse in 2004. In 2005, Man & Machine sued; in 2009, it was granted a trademark on the term.

(Side note: the crime-busting cartoon character fell afoul of similar trademark issues shortly after his debut: He was originally Super Mouse, until the owners of another Super Mouse complained.)

Apple solved its latest trademark problem with a new multitouch mouse with a noninfringing name: Magic Mouse. Let's hope that Warner Bros, owner of Merlin the Magic Mouse, doesn't notice.

See also: The 22 weirdest laptop designs