What Apple's Troubling Quest to Trademark Store Design Says About Architecture

What Apple's Troubling Quest to Trademark Store Design Says About Architecture
An Apple Store in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Yesterday, Apple procured yet another registered trademark certificate from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, this time covering what is, in a sense, its largest design asset yet: its architecture. As Patently Apple reports, the “Distinctive Design & Layout” of Apple’s stores — specifically the color and black-and-white versions of Apple’s mall-centric retail locations — are now officially trademarked, nine years after the first Apple store opened in Virginia. This latest registration seems bound to contribute to an already heated debate about the meaning of intellectual property in the architecture and design world.

The timing is important. Though Apple reportedly first filed to have its store designs trademarked in May 2010, the recent conferring of the trademark coincides with a related legal skirmish in China, in which architect Zaha Hadid and her client Soho China have accused another developer of illegally copying a Hadid design. Apple is undoubtedly aware of its own flagrant imitators in China, many of whom have capitalized on bootlegging Apple products and, yes, simulating entire stores, complete with the glass walls, sparse furnishings, and open layouts that are now protected under U.S. law. Throngs of fake Apple stores have been discovered en masse in China, though regulations prohibiting the replication of another company’s “look and feel” have forced imitators to eventually abandon their acts.

Still, the legal safeguarding of Apple’s architecture in the U.S. prompts one to wonder against whom and what the trademarks are meant to protect. The answer seems quite obvious. Apple’s assiduous trademarking reflects the same protective stance evinced in the multiple legal battles that the corporation has waged against competitors such as Samsung and HTC for allegedly stealing design concepts incubated by Steve Jobs and his entourage. Such lawsuits over who owns the swiping motion that activates an iPhone or the rectangular touch-screen “tablet” pioneered by the iPad point to a seeming paradox: Apple’s ethos of impeccably intuitive design aims to program an innate way to interact with the contemporary world, while its frantic assertion of intellectual property rights reveals how its designs are not innate at all; they were dreamt up by a small group of individuals and disseminated at a global scale.

The same paradox applies to the trademarking of Apple’s retail store architecture. However generic, the patented Apple store's characteristic rectilinear open plan with symmetrically arranged tables and wall displays has indisputably come to evoke the brand. At the same time, a description of this “Distinctive Design” appears almost comically simple. Its organizational logic seems as natural as the grid of apps that appear on an iPhone, or the ease with which an image disappears with the swipe of a finger.

Thus, regardless of whether or not this recent trademarking indicates an increasing concern for authorship rights in architecture, it can definitely serve as a reminder that no design, however intuitive, can be accepted as standard. By identifying everything from logos, to objects, to store designs and physical hand gestures as devices of their own design, Apple has made its position clear on what belongs to them and what belongs to the public domain. What is not clear is where the logic of this obsessive trademarking will lead or, put in another way, what it means for a corporation to both produce and own our essential means of relating to the world around us.