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Only the lawyers are happy

According to Macworld UK, Shenzhen-based Proview has rejected a RMB100 million (US$16m) iPad trademark offer from Apple. The Chinese firm owns the rights to the name, having won a legal decision in a PRC court.

I'm a journalist, not a legal expert, but I've read that such decisions are difficult to overturn on appeal. Still, if Apple has to bite the bullet on this one and hand over a briefcase full of cash to sell their iconic slate-machine in China, they can afford it. Apparently an eight-figure sum isn't fat enough for Proview. Macworld UK reported that Proview refused the offer, and is asking for at least RMB400 million.

It's a curious case: remember when the still-unveiled device was nameless, and many thought it might be called the iSlate? In December 2011, the Shenzhen Municipal Intermediate People's Court in China ruled that Apple's had signed a contract for iPad trademark rights only through a subsidiary of Proview in Taiwan. Did anyone at Apple perform due diligence on name-trademarks in the PRC?

It's all speculation, but the fact remains that while Apple can sell iPads in Hong Kong (and more than a few of those find their way north of the border), the device's legal status in mainland China remains unclear.

While Proview and Apple haggle, Chinese consumers are denied iPad purchases. This isn't good for business, but lawsuits rarely are. Only the lawyers are happy.

And they've been feasting at the tech-vendor trough lately. Apple is the target of numerous lawsuits, and is filing countersuits.

The Cupertino juggernaut had the smartphone market sewn up for years with their iconic iPhone, until Google's Android OS allowed other handset markets to offer features (expandable memory, different screen-sizes) that Apple doesn't. In this regard, Apple's phone-strategy recalls Henry Ford's assembly-line breakthrough in the early twentieth century: the Ford Model T was the first automobile mass produced on moving assembly lines with interchangeable parts, making it affordable for middle-class buyer. But the popular Model T joke of the time highlighted a downside: "you can have any color you like, as long it's black." Apple does offer white iPhones, but they're all the same size, and you can use any dashboard you like, as long as it's iTunes.

With this level of competition in the cutthroat mobile space, lawsuits are inevitable. That doesn't make them welcome: legal costs are invariably passed on to the consumer. If HTC or Samsung shreds stacks of cash bashing their head against Cupertino's legal eagles, and burns more defending themselves, who pays? You and I do, when we purchase a mobile device. Enterprises and SMBs do, when they decide to use mobile devices to improve their workflow. Technology can improve business-processes, but a "lawyer-tax" on the hardware is a hindrance. It's a lose-lose situation.

Alas, I don't have any solutions. What happened at Apple's legal department--do they need a better map and more China/Taiwan legal experts? When disruptive products like the iPad create wheelbarrows of cash, lawyers circle in expectation. Perhaps one of the corollaries of Moore's Law is that the world of IT will increasingly look more like the world of business-as-usual.

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