Beatles and Steve Jobs Back in Court Over Apple Trademark

For the third time in twenty five years, the Beatles and Steve Jobs are in court over the Apple trademark.

The history is interesting. NYT’s Matthew Healy notes that, “The Beatles set up Apple Corps in 1968, partly as a tax shelter. These days the firm, led by Neil Aspinall, a longtime Beatles confidant, functions as record label, merchandiser and general defender of the Beatles’ business rights.”

Liz Chong, writing for the Times of London, briefly summarizes the legal entanglement:

The Beatles first used a logo of a Granny Smith in 1968 when they founded the Apple Corps to distribute their records and those of other artists they signed to the Apple record label. The records had a ripe apple on one side and a neatly sliced half on the reverse. The Apple Records subsidiary is still active as the licensing agent for Beatles products.

Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple Computer, founded his company in 1976 with a logo of a rainbow-coloured apple with a bite taken out of it.

Apple Corps sued him five years later, accepting an $80,000 settlement and a promise that the computer company would stay out of the music business. The companies clashed again in 1989 after Apple Computer introduced a music-making program. The computer company settled in 1991, for $26 million. Apple Corps was awarded rights to the name on “creative works whose principal content is music” while Apple Computer was allowed “goods and services . . . used to reproduce, run, play or otherwise deliver such content”. Critically, however, the agreement prevented Apple Computer from distributing content on physical media. This was designed to cover CDs and tapes, but it is unclear whether it included later inventions such as digital music files or devices used to play them. Apple Computer will argue that its music service, which has sold more than a billion songs since 2002, is merely data transmission.

But, rather obviously, there is no meaningful business distinction between selling songs in digital format vice on pre-recorded CDs or tapes. All those formats are both “creative works whose principal content is music” and “data transmission.”

One wonders, though, to what extent Apple Records is harmed here. On the one hand, while I am of course familiar with Apple Records, it has been some time since I thought of “Apple” as a record company instead of a computer company. While that may indeed be a problem, it’s a non-issue since they sold away the right to use the “Apple” name in 1981 for $80,000.

More importantly, I would argue that “Apple” has ceased to be the dominant trademark association for either firm. I tend to think of the computer as a “Mac” or “MacIntosh” rather than an “Apple.” While I know that Apple owns them, I never think of iTunes in association with with Apple but rather in association with “iPod.” Similarly, the brand name most identifiable with Apple Records is and always has been “The Beatles.”

Photo: Apple Records LogoPhoto: Apple Computer Logo, 1976-1998Photo: Apple Computer Logo, 1998-present

Are consumers genuinely getting confused by these competing trademarks? And does it matter that neither Apple is selling Beatles songs electronically?

Update: An amusing coincidence has been noted by Andrew Thomas of the Inquirer.

IT WAS FORTY YEARS AGO TODAY that John Lennon famously observed that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, resulting in outrage from some of the more easily-excitable Christian groups. Albums were burned and sales soared as people queued to buy Beatles albums just to burn them.

But this Wednesday, the Beatles risk the wrath of an even more extreme fundamentalist religious group, the devoted followers of the great prophet L. Ron Jobs, as Apple Corps goes to the High Court in London seeking multimillion-pound damages against entertainment company Apple Computer over its iTunes music store.

He also notes, “One of the first musical sounds made by an Apple computer was called Sosumi — pronounced ‘so sue me’.”


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Danny says:

    Apple Records were “cool” many years ago. I find it hard to believe it’s still around. Why don’t they be thankful some kids these days like the Beatles but understand that thier faithfulness will always be with Apple computer!!!

    Imagine that Paul!!!