apple computer, inc

Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corporation

This article is about the "look and feel" copyright lawsuit between Apple Inc. (formerly Apple Computer, Inc.) and Microsoft Corporation. There have been other lawsuits between the two companies.

Apple Computer Inc. v. Microsoft Corporation, 35 F.3d 1435 (9th Cir. 1994) was a copyright infringement lawsuit in which Apple Computer, Inc. (now Apple Inc.) sought to prevent Microsoft Corporation and Hewlett-Packard from using visual graphical user interface (GUI) elements that were similar to those in Apple's Lisa and Macintosh operating systems. Some critics claimed that Apple was really attempting to gain all intellectual property rights over the desktop metaphor for computer interfaces, and perhaps all GUIs, on personal computers. Apple lost all claims in the lawsuit, except that the court ruled that the "trash can" icon and file folder icons from Hewlett-Packard's now-forgotten NewWave windows application were infringing. The lawsuit was filed in 1988 and lasted four years; the decision was affirmed on appeal in 1994, and Apple's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied.

Apple had previously agreed to license certain parts of its GUI to Microsoft for use in Windows 1.0. When Microsoft made changes in Windows 2.0, such as overlapping windows and other more Macintosh-like GUI features, Apple filed suit, and then added additional claims to the suit when Microsoft released Windows 3.0.

Apple claimed the "look and feel" of the Macintosh operating system, taken as a whole, was protected by copyright, and that each individual element of the interface (such as the existence of windows on the screen, the fact that they are rectangular, are resizable, overlap, and have title bars) was not as important as all these elements taken together. After long arguments, the judge insisted on an analysis of specific GUI elements that Apple claimed were infringements. Apple came up with a list of 189 GUI elements; the judge decided that 179 of these elements had been licensed to Microsoft in the Windows 1.0 agreement, and most of the remaining 10 elements were not copyrightable—either they were unoriginal to Apple, or they were the only possible way of expressing a particular idea.

In a twist midway through the suit, Xerox filed a lawsuit against Apple, claiming Apple had infringed copyrights Xerox held on its GUIs. Xerox had invested in Apple and had invited the Macintosh design team to view their GUI computers at the PARC research lab; these visits had been very influential on the development of the Macintosh GUI. Xerox's lawsuit appeared to be a defensive move to ensure that if Apple v. Microsoft established that "look and feel" was copyrightable, then Xerox would be the primary beneficiary, rather than Apple. The Xerox case was dismissed because the three year statute of limitations had passed.


The court based most of its ruling on the original licensing agreement between Apple and Microsoft for Windows 1.0. This made the case more of a contractual matter than one of copyright law, much against Apple's intentions. This also meant that the court could avoid a far-reaching "look and feel copyright" precedent ruling.

In 1997, five years after the lawsuit was decided, all lingering infringement questions against Microsoft regarding the Lisa and Macintosh GUI as well as Apple's "QuickTime piracy" lawsuit against Microsoft were settled in direct negotiations. Apple agreed to make Internet Explorer their default browser, to the detriment of Netscape. Microsoft agreed to continue developing their Office and other software for the Mac for the next five years. Microsoft also purchased $150 million of non-voting Apple stock, helping Apple in its financial struggles at the time. Both parties entered into a patent cross-licensing agreement.

In recent years Apple has resumed threats of litigation in this area. One target has been Stardock, whose CEO Brad Wardell once joked that Apple's lawyers had him on speed-dial. Apple was not pleased when skins and themes for WindowBlinds, IconPackager and DesktopX, looking similar to their Aqua GUI, were released in mid-2000, that is, over six months before the release of Mac OS X.

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