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Apple v. Microsoft

(This article is about the "look and feel" copyright lawsuit between Apple Computer and Microsoft. There have been, and presumably will continue to be, other lawsuits between the two companies.)

The Apple v. Microsoft copyright infringement lawsuit was an attempt by Apple Computer to prevent Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard from using visual GUI elements that were similar to those in Apple's Lisa and Macintosh operating systems. Some critics claimed that Apple was really attempting to gain all intellectual property rights over the desktop metaphor for computer interfaces, and perhaps all GUIs, on personal computers. Apple lost all claims in the lawsuit, except that the court ruled that the trash can icon and file folder icons from Hewlett-Packard's now-forgotten NewWave windows application were infringing. The lawsuit was filed in 1988 and lasted four years; the decision was affirmed on appeal in 1994, and the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by Apple was denied.

Apple had previously agreed to license certain parts of its GUI to Microsoft for use in Windows 1.0. When Microsoft made large improvements in Windows 2.0, such as overlapping windows and other more Macintosh-like GUI features, Apple filed suit, and then added additional claims to the suit when Windows 3.0 debuted.

Apple claimed the "look and feel" of the Macintosh operating system, taken as a whole, was protected by copyright, and that each individual element of the interface (such as the existence of windows on the screen, the fact that they are rectangular, the fact that they are resizable, the fact that they overlap, and the fact that they have title bars) was not as important as all these elements taken together. After long argument, the judge insisted on an analysis of specific GUI elements that Apple claimed were infringements. Apple came up with a list of 189 GUI elements; the judge decided that 179 of these elements had been licensed to Microsoft in the Windows 1.0 agreement, and most of the remaining 10 elements were not copyrightable—either they were unoriginal to Apple, or they were the only possible way of expressing a particular idea.

In an odd twist midway through the suit, Xerox filed suit against Apple, declaring that Xerox was the holder of any and all copyrights on all GUIs. Xerox had been an investor in Apple, and had themselves invited the Macintosh design team to view their GUI computers at the PARC research lab; these visits had been very influential on the development of the Macintosh GUI. The Xerox case was dismissed on a technicality.


Apple v. Microsoft was the most complicated software copyright lawsuit to date, and probably since, and was followed with great interest by software developers and the Macintosh user community. Some observers cast Apple as the villain, saying that after failing in the marketplace, it was trying to use the courts to corner the market on an idea that was benefiting the world, and if Apple won, a precedent would be set allowing big companies to use the courts to squash all software developers' freedom to innovate when creating products that at all resembled the big companies' products. They added that even if this were legally and ethically correct behavior, Apple wasn't even the inventor of the GUI or the desktop metaphor in the first place. Others said Microsoft was the bad guy, brazenly stealing from Apple's innovative work and flouting the law, and that if Microsoft won, a precedent was set that would allow big companies to steal the core concepts from any software developer's work and get away with it.

As it happened, the court's approach seemed to invalidate the copyrighting of a broad "look and feel" of a piece of software, though this was not decisively stated in the court's ruling. The fact that Apple and Microsoft had entered into the licensing agreement for Windows 1.0 made a large part of the case a mere contractual matter rather than a matter of copyright law, so it was not necessary for the court to set a precedent in its ruling. It remains unclear what would have happened if Apple had acquired a software patent purporting to secure the "look and feel" of the Macintosh user interface as an invention, and had then pursued Microsoft and HP under patent law.

As if it were a postscript to the case, Microsoft invested $150 million in Apple in 1997; analysts called this an instance of "propping up" Apple. Among other announcements about several areas of cooperation between the two companies, it was noted that the arrangement would include a final settlement between the companies on all infringement questions regarding the Lisa and Macintosh GUI..

Today, Microsoft continues to adopt certain innovations from the Mac OS: Quicktime player was followed by Windows Media Player; features of iTunes were later incorporated into MP; iMovie is said to be derivative of Windows Movie Maker, etc. None of this, however, violates any intellectual property law; or else Apple has for some reason abandoned litigation.