About a week and a half ago, it came to my attention that Apple has recently filed a slew of federal trademark applications (about 30) for many of the icons that appear on the iPod Touch, iPhone, and/or iPad. For those of you who have no clue what I’m talking about, each software application on Apple’s mobile devices has an associated visual icon displayed on their touchscreens. When an icon is touched by the user, it launches a specific program (email, text messaging, web browser, etc.). For example, Apple has applied to register the following icons for programs that come pre-installed on its various devices (click on the icon to view a copy of the trademark application if you’re so inclined):
It probably doesn’t take a genius to figure out what types of programs are opened when these icons are touched (no, you don’t make a phone call by touching the camera icon). What’s important to note about these icons is that they launch programs that are intrinsic to the devices themselves (telephone calls, email, text messaging, address book, and shooting photographs). In other words, they are not software applications that merely “open the door” to information or functionality provided by a third-party. Therefore, these icons do, in fact, function as trademarks to designate the source of the application, which is Apple.
On the other hand, Apple has also applied to register the following four icons for software applications that also come preloaded on its devices (again, click on the icon to see the trademark application):
For my readers who haven’t yet made the switch to the best smartphone on the market (you will eventually, trust me), the first icon allows the user to access videos on YouTube (a website not owned or operated by Apple). The second one launches Google Maps. The third icon allows the user to view weather information provided by Yahoo!. And the last one opens an application which displays current stock prices and other financial information, also provided by Yahoo!. In fact, when the weather and stock applications are launched, Yahoo’s well-known “Y!” logo appears on the bottom left corner of the screen with no reference to Apple whatsoever. Furthermore, the word “YouTube” sits directly below the first icon when displayed on the iPhone screen.
So, what distinguishes these four icons from the previous five? Well, these icons and their associated programs act more as an entry point to services and information provided by companies other than Apple. Therefore, I believe there is a serious question as to whether users actually view these icons as source indicators (trademarks) for Apple’s computer software or, in contrast, they see them as source indicators for the underlying services provided by YouTube, Google, and Yahoo. I mean, is there really any difference between these four icons and those associated with the other 150,000 apps available for download from the iTunes App Store created by independent developers? For instance, when I purchase casino games from my favorite app developer (OK, I get them for free since he’s a good friend of mine), and the icon shows up on my screen, it’s not like I think that Apple is all of a sudden the company behind the game or the software. Then, when I launch the game, the logo of the app developer appears and my game begins. The same thing is true when I touch these four icons. If anything, I would argue that these four icons function more as trademarks for YouTube, Google, and Yahoo! than they do for Apple. If that’s true, then Apple would have little basis to maintain its trademark applications for those icons. Of course, it’s a factual question that would perhaps require some survey evidence to answer, but the question remains nonetheless.