Swiss Court denies Apple Trademark Application for IPHONE

In a ruling of November 24, 2009 the Swiss Federal Administrative Court has denied Apple’s trademark application for the name “IPHONE”. As Macworld wrote:

Apple’s appeal for reconsideration of its trademark application for the word “iPhone” has been rejected by the Swiss Federal Administrative Court, which maintained that the term is a non-distinctive word for which Apple could not be granted a trademark.

Right, iPhone not distinctive? Let’s check what the Court actually said.

The Court did point out that part of the name “IPHONE” was “phone” which couldn’t be used as a trademark. It then went on to check if the addition “I” does anything to make “IPHONE” distinct enough from “phone” to allow for a registration as a trademark. The relevant part of the ruling reads:

3.3.3 Wird das Zeichen “IPHONE” gesamthaft und in Bezug auf die beanspruchten Waren der Klasse 9 betrachtet, so ist die Interpretation des Zeichens “IPHONE” als direkter Hinweis auf ein Telefon mit internetbezogenen- oder anderen informations- bzw. kommunkationstechnologischen Zusatzfunktionen naheliegend. Der Buchstabe “I” könnte aber allenfalls mit “Ich” und das Zeichen “IPHONE” als “Ich telefoniere; Ich rufe an” interpretiert werden. Allerdings ist im englischen Sprachgebrauch “I call” für “Ich telefoniere” üblich. Für einen durchschnittlichen Abnehmer bleibt aber gleichwohl unklar, was der Buchstabe “I” im Zusammenhang mit dem Begriff “phone” genau bedeutet. Diese Bedeutung ergibt sich zwar nicht sofort aus der Marke selbst, jedoch liegt eine technische und elektronische Bedeutung des Zeichens “IPHONE” auf der Hand. Unabhängig von der genauen Bedeutung des Buchstabens “I”, trägt dieser als solcher jedoch nichts Wesentliches dazu bei, den beschreibenden Charakter des Markenbestandteils “phone” abzuschwächen. Das Zeichen wird durch die Kombination des Einzelbuchstabens “I” mit dem unterscheidungsschwachen und für den Verkehr unentbehrlichen Markenbestandteil “phone” somit nicht unterscheidungskräftig.

3.3.3 When the sign “IPHONE” is examined overall and in relation to the claimed products of class 9, the interpretation of the sign “IPHONE” as direct hint to a telephone with additional functions based on Internet or other information or communication technologies, is obvious. The letter “I” could, however, be confused with the word [personal pronoun] “I” and the sign “IPHONE” could thus be confused with “I phone”. However, in English language usage mostly “I call” is commonly used for that purpose. Nevertheless, for an average user it remains  unclear, what the letter “I” actually means. The meaning is evident, however, not from the sign itself, but from the technological and electronic meaning of the sign “IPHONE”. Notwithstanding the exact meaning of the letter “I”, it does, as such, not significantly contribute to alleviate the descriptive character of the sign-part “phone”. The sign, even with the addition of the letter “I”, therefore is too weakly descriptive  for a term that is indispensable for communication and is therefore not distinctive.

It seems to me that the reasoning is a bit weak. Especially since, as Apple noted in the proceedings, that such signs as “IDOCUMENT”, “IPROJECT”, etc had been granted a trademark by the same courts that were now denying “IPHONE” the trademark registration.

The Federal Administrative Courts explains this away by confirming the lower court’s view:

Die Vorinstanz äussert sich in ihrer Stellungnahme vom 14. Juli 2009 klar zu ihrer Praxis und legt dar, dass von vereinzelten Fehleintragungen, teilweise aufgrund von Entscheiden der ehemaligen Rekurskommission, auszugehen sei

The lower court in an opinion of July 14, 2009 clearly comments its custom and explains, that this is a case of isolated mis-registrations, caused by erroneous decisions of previous commissions.

I remain unconvinced. So they changed their ‘customs’ somewhere between the last “IWHATEVER” and the “IPHONE” trademark application? I am not sure whether this is already final, since it could be appealed to the Swiss Federal Supreme Court.

Text of the ruling (German) is here.

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