How distinctive is the App Store?

23 March, 2011

Amazon has launched an “Appstore” selling applications for the Android mobile phone operating system. In response, Apple is suing Amazon in the US claiming that Amazon’s Appstore will “confuse and mislead customers” due to the similarity in name with Apple’s own App Store.

Apple has not yet been able to register App Store as a trademark in the US (and its application to do so is being opposed by Microsoft). However, APP STORE is registered as a European Community trade mark, effective from 21 July 2008. If Amazon were to launch their Appstore in the EU – and currently there is no information on if and when this will happen – then Apple would presumably want to bring trade mark infringement proceedings against Amazon.

To be honest, I’m amazed that Apple were able to register APP STORE as a trade mark. A mark must be distinctive in order to be capable of registration as a Community (or for that matter EU national) trade mark. In the words of the Community Trade Mark Regulation, it must be “capable of distinguishing the goods or services of one undertaking from those of other undertakings”. In particular a mark cannot be registered if it:

consist[s] exclusively of signs or indications which may serve, in trade, to designate the kind, quality, quantity, intended purpose, value, geographical origin or the time of production of the goods or of rendering of the service, or other characteristics of the goods or service.

To register APP STORE for the sale of computer software applications (that is, “apps”) is, to my mind, on a level with registering SHOE SHOP for the sale of footwear. No doubt Amazon’s defence to a claim would consist (in part) of a vigorous assertion that the mark should be revoked.

Against that, it is sometimes argued (though not, as far as I’m aware, by Apple itself) that Apple invented the word “app” in relation to software. There are two responses to this:

  1. Who invented the word isn’t relevant to whether it’s a valid trade mark. Even if Apple invented the word “app” for software, it is still widely used (even by Apple!) in a generic sense.
  2. It’s not true that Apple invented the word anyway: it’s not hard to find examples from before 2008 of the word “app” being used for software, particularly in the free/open source software world.

I do need to add a lawyerly disclaimer here. I am emphatically not arguing that readers of this blog post should rush out and start using the name “App Store”, confident in the knowledge that Apple’s trade mark registration is invalid. Apple could still run other arguments (such as a “passing off” claim), and would argue with equal vigour that their trade mark should stand (for example, on grounds of “acquired distinctiveness”). If you want to take on the world’s second largest company on an issue like this, be my guest – but take legal advice first…