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War of the Worlds: Apple and “Startup”

Apple’s kingdom of iKings and iQueens will not hold back on legal ownership of “STARTUP” causing a stir across Australia’s beloved startup communities.

Firstly, I’ll explain why it’s not as bad as you think, followed by why it’s still bad.

The ‘STARTUP’ application was lodged on August 27 by the Californian headquarters of Apple and a Sydney-based legal firm, Baker & McKenzie.

This is Apple’s second attempt at trademarking “STARTUP”. There wasn’t as much outrage back in the good ol’ Victorian era of April 2011 because the term “startup” wasn’t quite as sexy as it is today. There are communities around it, businesses leveraging it, and publications dedicated to it.

It’s quite understandable why many are outraged by this. It may, however, be a stark misunderstanding.

Let’s look at the reason why Apple wants to trademark “STARTUP”. If approved, it would be of great use to Apple because it characterises the design and development of computer hardware and software such as:

  1. Apple’s startup screen that appears when the product turns on;
  2. Educational services such as computer science classes, workshops, and seminars;
  3. Maintenance, installation, and the repair of computer hardware and consumer electronics; and
  4. Retail store services.

So let’s be clear, the application only covers four classes of intellectual property and doesn’t ask for permission to trademark the word that pertains to businesses. The four classes are specifically as follows:

Class 35: Retail store services, including retail store services featuring computers, computer software, computer peripherals, mobile phones, and consumer electronic devices, and demonstration of products relating thereto

Class 37: Maintenance, installation and repair of computer hardware, computer peripherals and consumer electronic devices; consulting services in the field of maintenance of computer hardware, computer peripherals, and consumer electronic devices

Class 41: Educational services, including conducting classes, workshops, conferences and seminars in the field of computers, computer software, computer peripherals, mobile phones, and consumer electronic devices and computer-related services; providing information in the field of education

Class 42: Design and development of computer hardware and software; technical support services, namely, troubleshooting of computer hardware and software problems; installation, maintenance and updating of computer software; technological consultancy services in the field of computers, computer software and consumer electronics; computer diagnostic services; computer data recovery

Apple’s “STARTUP” Trademark Application

I repeat, they are NOT claiming legal ownership of the word “STARTUP” as it pertains to businesses. It will have no impact on how businesses use the term.

Think of it this way. The world “Apple” is also trademarked, and if you’re a passionate food blogger, be rest assured you won’t be sued for mentioning the ingredient in your apple pie recipe.

On News Talk Radio Whio, Founder and Chairman of Rocket Lawyer is quoted saying:

“A basic principle of trademark law is that a company can’t claim a generic word as proprietary. The word ‘apple’ itself is actually a really good example of the principle. ‘Apple’ would not likely be approved as a trademark for a company that grows apples, but it’s a great trademark for a company that makes computer devices and software.”

Basically, what you can’t do is: invent a new computer operating system and call the welcome page a “STARTUP”. Nor can you conduct a seminar on Windows 8 and call that opening page a “STARTUP”.

If IP Australia, our trademark governing body, approves the application, “STARTUP” will be protected before the middle of next year.

That said, here’s why it’s still bad. While a business won’t get into legal strife for referring to itself as a startup, the term has a lot of connotations. It’s associated with entrepreneurship, innovation, even a particular philosophy and way of life.

If Apple went ahead and trademarked “Christianity” – and by this, I do NOT mean that “startup” is a religion, just that it has a community around it – then there would be just as much, if not more, outrage.

I understand that this is an exaggeration. But to some degree, Apple’s persistence on claiming ownership of “STARTUP” is a little over-the-top.

If you don’t at least understand why it could be seen as insulting to a startup founder, then you probably have limited insight on what they go through, the communities and organisations that have formed around startups, and why the term holds so much meaning today.

Then again, seeing it from a whole new angle, the problem may just be that we have a scandalous love triangle between Apple, the startup community and the word “STARTUP”.

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