What’s in a Name? 4 More Companies Go After the App Store Trademark

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Apple’s App Store trademark is under siege, and four more companies joined the fight to have it declared invalid in the European Union Thursday, according to Bloomberg. Microsoft, Nokia, Sony Ericsson and HTC all filed applications separately with the EU trademark agency yesterday in pursuit of that goal. The agency is the first step in a lengthy process that could be appealed many times, and might eventually make its way up to the top EU court in Luxembourg.

The four companies join Amazon, which filed its own opposition to Apple’s two EU trademarks (“APP STORE” and “APPSTORE”) back in mid April. Amazon has also argued that the trademark is invalid in the U.S., after being sued by Apple for trademark infringement following the launch of its own Appstore for Android devices.

Microsoft also challenged Apple’s U.S. App Store trademark application back in January, so its filing in the EU doesn’t come as a surprise. Nor should the filings by Nokia, Sony Ericsson and HTC, all of which are competitors with Apple in the smartphone arena, and all of which benefit from the sale of apps on their hardware platforms.

Microsoft issued an official statement about the new round of complaint applications which sums up their position:

Microsoft and other leading technology companies are seeking to invalidate Apple’s trademark registration for ‘APP STORE’ and ‘APPSTORE’ because we believe that they should not have been granted because they both lack distinctiveness.

What the statement doesn’t reveal, and what’s actually behind all disputes over this term, is that the phrase “App Store” is worth a lot of money. Users and the media have gotten in the habit of calling mobile software “apps” and software marketplaces “app stores,” regardless of brand or platform. That’s due largely to the early spread of Apple’s own mobile applications store, which was the first to gain significant traction among smartphone users.

Apple clearly believes it has achieved distinctive with the App Store trademark by combining the more distinctive “App” with the generic “Store,” making for a combination that together meets the requirements of trademark law. A term must be distinctive (or refer specifically to the thing it applies to) in order to be eligible for trademark, unless it qualifies for acquired distinctiveness, in which case it acquires specific association through repeated use over many years.

I’ve argued before that Apple is right to defend this trademark, and right to have pursued it in the first place. If anything, this latest action only reinforces that belief. Why are some of Apple’s biggest competitors so eager to have the trademark invalidated if it doesn’t have an enormous amount of value? Also, why hasn’t Google, which runs the most successful App Store competitor, joined in with these proceedings? Because this is a case of sour grapes, and one that isn’t very likely to bear fruit.

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