Apple’s New China Trade Dress Patents: At Least The PR Guys Are Happy

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The Financial Times reports:

Apple has been granted patents on some of the distinctive elements of its store designs in China as the US company moves to better protect itself against rampant copying of not only its products but also its sales channels on the Chinese mainland.

The three recently granted design patents cover the architecture of Apple’s stores in Shanghai and were awarded in May, according to state media reports, suggesting the company registered them after it began its expansion in China last year. One was announced on Wednesday by the state intellectual property office, covering a glass dome such as the one that is a distinctive feature of one of the company’s Shanghai stores.

These patents were registered in May, so I’m not sure why this is news. Which begs the question why am I talking about it? Because the news reports suggest that these patents would somehow be useful in going against those fake Apple stores that caused such a kerfuffle a couple months ago.

Now, I haven’t actually seen these patents (doing a patent search for a blog post isn’t worth it, folks), but from the articles I’ve read, these are design patents that cover aspects of the Apple stores. At least one of them includes the glass dome you can see in the pic.

While it’s possible that these patents provide Apple with nifty new ammunition that it needs to fight copycats, it certainly doesn’t look like it at first glance. I don’t recall that any of the fake stores included a glass dome. Moreover, is the glass dome in Shanghai so different from the usual Apple store glass box design (obviously I’m no architect)? Apple’s New York store on 5th Avenue and the Beijing Apple store have had the glass box design for years.

Why is this important? Patents in China must meet several requirements, one of which is called “novelty.” That’s just a fancy word for “new,” and it means that patent protection will not be granted to something that isn’t new.

But wait, Apple did in fact get those patents, so they must be new, right? The patent office wouldn’t have given them protection for an old design, would it?

Funny thing. There are three kinds of patents in China: inventions, utility models, and designs. All three require novelty, but the patent office only performs what is called substantive review on invention applications. That means that for utility models and design applications, the patent office is basically taking the applicant’s word for it that the design/inventive step is truly novel.

Again, I haven’t seen the patent that covers the glass dome. If it is narrow in scope, then it might not be useful in going after a third party store that uses a glass box design. If, on the other hand, it is wide in scope, then it may have novelty problems. Hmm.

So where does this leave Apple and its new architectural design patents? Well, patents are solid forms of IP . . . until they aren’t. To put it another way, if Apple uses those patents against alleged infringers, everything might be fine. Perhaps these designs are really novel, in which case Apple has nothing to worry about. Similarly, if the alleged infringers decide not to challenge the validity of those patents, then again, Apple would win (if the rest of their case was strong).

However, if Apple’s designs are not new, and a third party challenges their validity, then Apple could run into trouble. It would help to know what the other two patents cover, of course.

At this point, though, I’m not sure that this new IP is any kind of magic bullet. In the IP universe, the best weapon against the kind of fake stores we have seen is probably still trademark protection. There is no doubt that these stores were using the Apple logo without authorization.

Nevertheless, with all the bad publicity Apple received over the summer about the fake stores, though, perhaps this design protection will make for some nifty press releases.

4 responses on “Apple’s New China Trade Dress Patents: At Least The PR Guys Are Happy

  1. S.K. Cheung

    I don’t really get this on a layman level. Apple is going after Samsung for patent infringement on the new Galaxy tab, but that makes sense. Samsung wants to market Tabs legitimately, so that they can sell it for market value. That’s why they would care about potential patent infringement, and definitely care about losing patent suits.

    But if someone is illegally opening illegitimate Apple stores, how is this going to deter them? The store is fake, with or without a fancy glass thing on top. Besides, if I was opening a fake Apple store, i wouldn’t waste my money making a fancy glass thing anyway. Just hang up a couple of logos of partially eaten apples, throw in some boxy ikea furniture, paint the walls white, some fluorescent lighting, and away you go.

    If anything, this might deter Samsung from opening up Samsung stores with glass domes. But was this in the Samsung strategy?

    In the end, as you say, this might do more to sell newspapers than it helps to sell iPads.

    1. Stan Post author

      Not sure whether China’s IP laws constitute adopting American laws and morals, but either way, it’s kind of a done deal at this point. All that noise you hear is just about enforcement.