The Contentious Legal History Between the Apple Corps and Apple Computer

Today the word “apple” has come to be associated less with the fruit and more so with technological innovation as products by the Steve Jobs founded company have become so widespread in use and popularity that some people swear only by Apple products and refuse to purchase PCs or Androids. It was not long ago that Apple’s biggest enemy was not Samsung, LG or even Microsoft, but The Beatles. You read that right, from 1978 to 2007 the multimedia corporation Apple Corps Ltd, owned by the fab four from Liverpool, took Apple Inc. (then called Apple Computer) to battle in the High Court of Justice in the UK.

After the death of their beloved manager Brian Epstein in 1967, The Beatles launched Apple Corps as a way to give themselves more control of their finances and profits. Within the organization was recording label Apple Records on which The Beatles released their iconic albums Abbey Road, Yellow Submarine, and Let It Be, and many new artists were also signed, including James Taylor. Their first trademark was registered in 1969, and the whole or half green apple logo became an important part of its business. Apple Corps continues to operate in the business of music and film.

Steve Jobs co-founded Apple Computer Company in 1976, claiming he named it so it would come before “Atari” in the phone book, which was at that time the leader in technology. They adopted the stylized rainbow apple with a bite missing from it as its logo. Almost immediately in 1978, Apple Corps sued Apple Computer for trademark infringement. This first legal dispute settled out of court in 1981 resulting in Apple Computer paying $80,000 to Apple Corps and the two companies agreed that so long as Apple Corps never entered the world of computers or used a rainbow apple with a bite missing as a logo, and Apple Computer never entered the world of music or used a whole or half of a green apple as a logo, then the two companies could exist in harmony.

In 1981, at the settlement of their first dispute, the two companies could not foresee music and computers overlapping the way they do today. However, as technology developed, Apple Corps took Apple Computer to court again in 1991 when Apple Computer violated this agreement when they created computers with the capability of making sound in 1989. Apple Corps pounced on the computer company and once again Apple Computers was made to $26.5 million dollars to the powerful Beatles-owned company. The companies agreed that Apple Computer would be involved in digital music; however, they would not be selling or distributing physical music materials, such as CDs and cassettes.

This second wave of harmony did not last long, because in January 2001, Apple Computer introduced the world to iTunes Software, which initially only acted as a “jukebox for the computer” and shortly after released the first generation iPod, a portable device to carry your iTunes library with you. In April 2003, Apple Computer announced that an “iTunes Music Store” element would be added to the iTunes software. The name “Apple” was not used in the iTunes Music Store name; however, the Apple Computer logo was used prominently in relation to the store. Apple Corps cited this as a breach of their 1991 agreement and once again sued Apple Computer. This time however, because the High Court found that the distribution of digital music is a completely different market from the distribution of physical music and that Apple Corps had no recognition in this new market and the agreement did not cover the distribution of digital music, Apple Computers prevailed this time in 2006.

Relations between Apple Corps and Apple, Inc. have been mostly calm since 2007. Eventually Apple Corps even allowed The Beatles catalog to be sold on the iTunes Music Store in 2010. This drawn out legal history between the two powerful companies will probably be forgotten by future generations, but the next time you listen to music from the iTunes Store on your iPhone or find that old 5th generation iPod buried in your box of high school memories, remember that at one time Apple fought hard against another, older Apple for you to have that technology in your hands.


Apple Corps Ltd. v. Apple Computer, Inc. 2006 WL 1288354 


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