Time for Irony: Apple Accused of Stealing Swiss Clock Design

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Apple may soon be facing a legal challenge from the Swiss Federal Railway, SBB, for using a design nearly identical to that of the railway’s station clocks as part of the new Clock app for iPad in iOS 6, Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger reported Thursday [Google Translation]. The design of the clock is licensed by SBB for third party use, but Apple did not seek approval to use the design before implementing it on the iPad.

Apple iPad Clock Swiss Railway Comparison

The controversy over Apple’s unauthorized use of the clock is bitterly ironic, as it comes just weeks after Apple won a major court case against Samsung for the Korean company’s unauthorized copying of Apple’s designs for smartphones and mobile OS software. Following the verdict, Apple CEO Tim Cook, in a note to employees, wrote: “The jury has now spoken. We applaud them for finding Samsung’s behavior willful and for sending a loud and clear message that stealing isn’t right.”

SBB has contacted Apple to determine a “legal and financial” resolution. “We enjoy the fact that the Swiss railway clock is being used by Apple. It once again proves that it’s a real piece of design,” SBB spokesperson Christian Ginsig said. “This act, however, is an unauthorized use [of the clock’s design] by Apple.”

It is likely that Apple will quickly and quietly agree to licensing terms to end the dispute, but the situation serves as a reminder that Apple, despite its best efforts to characterize itself as such during ongoing copyright and patent lawsuits around the world, is not always a victim. While this incident is worlds apart from the persistent and wholesale copying that Samsung has been accused of, there is at least a hint of “pot, kettle, and black” in the air.

The clock, an icon in Switzerland, was designed by Hans Hilfiker in 1944. Copyright and trademark rights are now owned by SBB, which licenses the clock’s use for commercial sale of wristwatches and wall clocks.

UPDATE (2012-09-21 7:41 EDT): As some in the comments have noted, the two clocks are not literally, exactly, the same. It's important to remember, however, that Apple's phone icon in iOS, below, was not exactly the same as any Android phone icon used by Samsung, yet nobody seriously argued that Samsung had not abused Apple's design without permission. Similarly, there is no doubt that Apple designers copied the SBB clock, for honest reasons of "inspiration" or "paying homage," or otherwise.

Apple Phone icon Comparison to Samsung

[via MacRumors]

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It is not clear Apple has committed a copyright violation. In my mind, Apple has a pretty good fair use argument. After all, Apple using the design doesn’t deprive the copyright holder of revenue, which is an element to establish fair use. Moreover, if Apple can show independent creation (unlikely) it can’t be found liable for copyright infringement.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Let me help you out, Terrin. You can clearly see that Apple’s version does not have the center logo, has longer minute ticks, and that the red circle in the Apple version does not touch or cover the 5 minute ticks in the licensed SBB version. These observations clearly absolve Apple of the charges of copying SBB’s IP, posturing on patents, and blatant hypocrisy. QED.


The clocks are similar, but certainly NOT identical. The round part on the seconds hand is dfferent in size, and the hand is longer at the back.


They are not the same.

And I don’t think SSB has a patent on a red seconds hand with a red dot smile.


Sheesh. I’m sure that same clock is used in Belgian railway stations.

Lee Dronick

I would say that they look similar mostly because of the second hand. Change that and there shouldn’d be any problem.


There’s no question in my mind that Apple’s version is a copy of the Swiss design. The designer likely assumed that it was in the public domain. The assumption could have been based on how long the design has been around, or that it belonged to the Swiss Federal Railway and a lot of things paid for by the US government are public. For example I think you can use the famous “earthrise” picture from Apollo 8 without worry. A lot of federally funded research is public property as well.

A screw up, yes. But an honest screw up. As you said Apple is likely working quickly to either license the design or modify it so that it doesn’t infringe, or both


Awesome clock launched by Apple,it’s similar to swiss design….



I didn’t say Apple’s clock didn’t look like a copy. I said it might be fair use, and it might be. Apple isn’t selling any product because of the design of the clock icon. It has many choices. If I recall, it even has a few Sesame Street ones. 

Further, it is possible the person who created it thought the work in the public domain. I doubt Samsung thought Apple’s iPhone design in the public domain. After all the design was created in the 40’s.  It used to be copyright expired similarly to patent law after 14 years. Now it is out of control. If Apple doesn’t think it has a fair use argument, it will pay for the use and/or remove it.

I doubt there is an Apple manuscript (e.g. Samsung style) outlining every feature of the clock and suggesting ways to copy the clock.

There is certainly no irony here as the title to the article suggests.


Those wearing Apple-colored glasses need to take them off and admit this is a blatant copy. And the Apple haters need to use the same logic they used in the Samsung case: the SSB didn’t invent white and red circles.


Of course it’s an out and out copy. The court case should be thrilling.


Nope.  The time to pass judgement is after the Swiss present Apple with its claim including the valid proof of copyright.  It’s highly likely that Apple did not know that the design is under copyright.  Did you know?  Did anyone?  My guess is Apple will just change the clock design on the next iOS update.



FWIW: When I first saw the clock on iOS6, my first thought was, where had I seen this before. I made the connection to the Swiss Federal Railway clock, which I have seen (including just recently).

I think the same arguments that Apple used regarding its own design patents can be applied here, as people who know this design will be immediately reminded of the SBB clock.

While I am inclined to agree with geoduck above, that this was likely an honest and unintentional incursion, I hope that Apple do the right thing and settle with SBB. I believe that sympathy will be with the Swiss.

It will be an interesting story to track. Please keep us posted.



I just read on CNN Money (Elmer-Dewitt’s blog from 12 October) that Apple and SBB have settled, although the Swiss are not commenting on the amount of the settlement that allows Apple to continue using the clock in iOS.

So very Swiss.

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