Apple Granted Trademark Protection for Key Retail Store Features

Key aspects of the sleek, minimalist design of Apple’s Retail Stores are now trademarked after the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office granted Apple’s request to protect its highly successful retail layout Tuesday, according to Reuters. While Apple Stores around the world have unique designs, the trademark attempts to protect characteristics that have become common to nearly all of the Cupertino company’s retail locations.

Apple Retail Store Trademark

Image from Apple's Trademark Application

The mark consists of the design and layout of a retail store. The store features a clear glass storefront surrounded by a paneled facade consisting of large, rectangular horizontal panels over the top of the glass front, and two narrower panels stacked on either side of the storefront. Within the store, rectangular recessed lighting units traverse the length of the store’s ceiling. There are cantilevered shelves below recessed display spaces along the side walls, and rectangular tables arranged in a line in the middle of the store parallel to the walls and extending from the storefront to the back of the store. There is multi-tiered shelving along the side walls, and a oblong table with stools located at the back of the store, set below video screens flush mounted on the back wall. The walls, floors, lighting, and other fixtures appear in dotted lines and are not claimed as individual features of the mark; however, the placement of the various items are considered to be part of the overall mark.

As mentioned by Reuters, fake Apple stores, or competing stores copying the Apple Retail layout and design, have become common in many parts of the world. In 2011, a string of fake Apple Stores in China were shut down after discussions between Apple and local governments. The stores were so convincing that many of the hapless employees thought they were actually working for Apple.

Apple’s efforts to trademark key features of the Apple Store design may be the first step to a more aggressive defense, both domestically and internationally, of the retail experience it pioneered over a decade ago. While the trademark protection granted by the USPTO does not apply internationally, achieving domestic trademark protection is often a prelude to attempts to seek similar protections in other countries.

Aside from more serious issues internationally, even in the United States many have critically compared Microsoft’s retail store experience to that of Apple, pointing out glaring similarities between the stores in terms of layout, products placement, and employee clothing.

It should be noted that the type of trademark protection Apple is seeking relates to trade dress on interior designs, and Apple is not the first company to seek such a protection. The 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Two Pesos, Inc. v. Taco Cabana, Inc. (505 U.S. 763) declared that the design and decor of a store, in this case a fast food mexican restaurant, is eligible for protection if the plaintiff can prove that a defendant’s use of its design would confuse and mislead consumers.

In the case of Two Pesos v. Taco Cabana, the Texas fast food chain Two Pesos operated stores with color schemes and designs nearly identical to those used by the older and larger Taco Cabana chain. Because Taco Cabana’s trade dress was “inherently distinctive,” the court found, it was eligible for protection under the Trademark Act of 1946.

With Apple’s Retail Store trademark now in hand, the company may pursue action against other retail stores that copy its stores’ inherently distinctive features. While this may prove effective against fake Apple stores like those seen in China, a case against a potential Microsoft Store will be far more difficult to establish.

“The million dollar question in this instance, as in pretty much all trade dress cases, is just how close a competitor can come to the design without infringing,” Christopher Sprigman, a law professor at the University of Virginia, told Reuters.

Apple operates 400 stores in 14 countries (250 in the United States), while Microsoft thus far has 30 stores in the United States and one in Canada.