What we are seeing now is a form of bullying emerging in the corporate realm. Large corporations employing high-powered law firms to fight these outlandish, perceived business threats in court. They are hijacking our legal system and using it as a carpet bombing campaign on small businesses.
It used to be funny to joke about schoolyard bullying. Who didn’t like a good tale about wet willies, atomic wedgies, or somebody getting beaten with their own fists (“quit hitting yourself, quit hitting yourself!”)? As awareness of bullying has grown — and people have begun to realize there are legitimate, long-lasting repercussions that can affect victims for their entire lives — bullying jokes have been replaced with growing concern about the direction of today’s youth and hard questions regarding the solution.
For the schoolyard bullying conundrum I have no answers, but I will say this — they are children, and we all know children do the dumbest things imaginable at all times. Not an excuse, simply an observation. Many bullies grow up to be normal, fully-functioning adults, albeit ones that still twitch every time someone wearing glasses walks by.
A smaller number of bullies grow up, join corporations, and make a living out of giving business-wedgies to people who lack the resources or time to adequately defend themselves.
With that introduction in mind, here is the story of Robin Peng, AppleCore and the Apple Corporation.
“I have to be very careful because I don’t want to turn this very important legal case into an Apple-bashing campaign,” Peng told Beehive Startups in a recent interview. “I actually like Apple and have friends that work at Apple. I’m not interested in painting Apple as the evil empire, but rather looking at the corporate forum and our legal system as being completely wrecked.”
Just as Peng stated, let’s make this abundantly clear: this issue isn’t about attacking Apple Inc. as an business, but rather a recognition of the holes that exist within America’s legal system, holes that enable the practice of corporate bullying. This issue is larger than AppleCore or Apple Inc. — it essentially raises questions about legal protection offered to legitimate small businesses under US law.
In 2007, Peng, a Utah-based inventor and founder of Design Engine, created and patented a cable-organizing device called the AppleCore. Picture an apple core, picture wrapping a cord around that apple core, and you have the basic idea.
Now picture Apple Inc. deciding Peng’s AppleCore infringed on their territory, sending a team of lawyers to Salt Lake City, and ordering Peng to cease and desist because customers can’t tell the difference between AppleCore, AppleCare, and Apple Store.
“The key word here is consumer confusion,” Peng said. “It’s a landmark case because if Apple wins this, words like apple cider, apple pie, and apple turnover, would be subject to litigation. If I was a pragmatic businessman, I would have jettisoned out of this case already. As a designer, I tend to more of an idealist — you have to defend your idea, you have to defend the truth. The reason this is called the AppleCore is because it resembles an actual apple core.”
Here’s a really quick lesson regarding consumer confusion: not all Apples carry the same meaning — some Apples represent the iPod, some Apples represent cable organizers — and switching letters with one another — even if it’s just one letter — changes the meaning of a word. As it turns out, that’s a fairly basic function of the English language.
This is going to make you feel sad and hopeless, so please brace yourself. The merits of AppleCore’s argument are basically irrelevant, because corporate bullying revolves around one simple strategy — proving right or wrong doesn’t matter if you can just eliminate your opponent.
“Lawyers, by default, are trained to litigate,” Peng said. “That’s how they make money. It’s been a proven legal strategy to bankrupt your opponent through extensive litigation. Essentially, large corporations are enjoying an impressive amount of power. They’re moving out of the reach of legal and government oversight. So with that extension of power, they’re forcing little guys to defend themselves in a court that favors large corporations. This type of strategy stymies innovation, right in the face of fair business practice.”
You don’t need me to draw the David vs Goliath comparisons: Peng has spent close to $100,000 defending himself, while Apple Inc. sits on a pile of money that extends to infinity and can afford to send lawyers against AppleCore for the remainder of time. For Peng, there probably isn’t a modern-day equivalent of the sling/stone combo he can use to fell the giant. The only thing he can do is raise awareness about the protection (or lack thereof) for small businesses under US law.
“I see now the emergence of a new, corporate Congress,” Peng said. “What I mean by that is: for me, you have to go obtain your trademark registration, legally file all the documents, and get it approved by the US Patent and Trademark Office. Once you have that, you’re protected by the government. But to Apple that’s irrelevant. When you go and file all that paperwork, under the guidelines of the Patent Office, there should be a certain level of protection. And frankly, the papers and documentation produced by the government have no protection.”
So now we’ve arrived at the core principle of this dispute. If a small business has legitimized itself through all the necessary legal channels, then why does the government offer no protection? Shouldn’t the government be responsible for stepping in and protecting the business, an entity already recognized by that same government as completely unique — not a knock-off or copycat, but an entirely individualized idea? This dispute shouldn’t come down to dollars vs dollars, because that’s exactly the mindset enabling corporate bullying.
“Any type of government-issued document should provide the same level of assurance for small businesses as the Bill of Rights does for its citizens,” Peng said. “If there is any legal dispute, Apple should take that up with the government, not the people who have already followed the laws that have been set forth. That is the key point I want to address. This case — AppleCore vs Apple — exposes the flaw in our legal system. And at the same time, the struggle for the entrepreneur that has to contend with this.”
Corporate bullying happens all the time. When your expense account is limitless, it’s easy to pick out smaller (perceived) competition and squash them without a sound. Apple is not the only large company doing this, though they continue to prove time and again their hatred when other people use apples for financial gain. There are too many cases to fully discuss, each more absurd than the last — most recent, Red Bull is suing Virginia-based Old Ox Brewery because “an ‘ox’ and a ‘bull’ both fall within the same class of ‘bovine’ animals and are virtually indistinguishable to most consumers.”
“What we are seeing now is a form of bullying emerging in the corporate realm,” Peng said. “Large corporations employing high-powered law firms to fight these outlandish, perceived business threats in court. They are hijacking our legal system and using it as a carpet bombing campaign on small businesses.”
Peng operates with limited resources, Apple Inc. does not — it’s as simple as that. Even the Beatles, the most powerful and influential helmet-haired band in music history, couldn’t win their battle against Apple. Without drastic change, this cycle will continue. AppleCore’s name will be turned to something else, Apple Inc. will go on their merry way and pick another fight with a different “competitor”, and nobody will remember this in five years. More importantly, small businesses will continue to go unprotected by the government. And that’s wrong.
“You hear people say small business is the backbone of this country, which is true,” Peng said. “This country has seen countless startups that have turned into industry giants. There’s no doubt that small business is what’s driving this economy. Therefore, it’s in everybody’s best interest to protect and defend these small startups. So now AppleCore is transposed into something more than a cable organizer.”
For those interested in more information, visit the saving AppleCore webpage.