Late last week, Apple was hit with a trademark infringement lawsuit courtesy of Randolph Divisions, a company that manufactures digital hearing aids. The Next Web reports that the suit, which was filed in Hawaii, alleges that Apple's EarPods headphones infringe upon their own "HearPod" trademark and product.
Apple's EarPods were originally released alongside the iPhone 5 this past September. They were touted as offering better sound quality and more comfort than previous Apple headphones which, while iconic, weren't exactly best in class audio-wise.
It's worth noting that Randolph Divisions has owned the "HearPod" trademark since 2007, though Apple itself does hold US trademarks for both "EarPods" and "Apple EarPods."
So does Randolph Divisions have a case here? It sure doesn't seem like it.
Under trademark law, the standard for infringement is whether or not two products are so similar as to cause a "likelihood of confusion" amongst consumers.
In deciding whether two products with similar marks might result in customer confusion, a court may look at a number of factors, including how well-known a particular trademark is, how similar the two marks in question are (do they look similar, do they sound similar), the intent of the defendant and any evidence of actual customer confusion in the marketplace.
In this particular case, it's a struggle to find an inkling of how customer confusion could exist.
Randolph Divisions' HearPod hearing aids are in a completely different product category than Apple's EarPods. Furthermore, it seems hard, if not impossible, to imagine any consumer looking for hearing aids and mistakenly picking up a pair of Apple's white EarPods instead.
It's also worth noting that the courts will sometimes look at how expensive or unique a product is when making a determination regarding the likelihood of customer confusion.
For instance, when a product is particularly expensive or unique, customers are likely to be more informed of their purchase decisions and consequently less prone to confusion. To that end, hearing aids are as unique a product as any and it stands to reason that someone in the market for hearing aids certainly knows the difference between that and headphones.
Nonetheless, the complaint attempts to paint both products as being similar in nature.
It reads in part:
Both Plaintiffs' Goods and Defendant's Goods are similar in nature in that, among other things, they are inserted into the ears of their users and are used to facilitate and enhance the transmission of sounds to the users.
That's a stretch, to say the least.
Randolph Divisions is also alleging infringement via trademark dilution. Here, again, the company runs into trouble as dilution is typically found when a company's trademark is either associated with an unseemly product (i.e. cigarettes) or is used on a product which blurs the distinctiveness of the original trademark.
I would surmise that Randolph Divisons' only leg to stand on is the fact that the earpod.com domain name redirects to myhearpod.com, a domain owned and operated by Randolph Divisions. That, however, suggests that folks looking for the Apple headphones are more likely to be affected by product confusion than those looking for hearing aids.
Randolph Divisions is asking for damages along with an order preventing Apple from selling its EarPods. Based on the above, I doubt this case will go anywhere, but it's certainly interesting to see Apple on the opposite side of a pod-centric legal dispute.
Apple has historically been rather aggressive in protecting its Pod trademark. For instance, Apple opposed Sector Labs' plan to introduce a video projector called "Video Pod." The case ultimately went to trial with the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruling that Apple's 'Pod' trademark was famous and therefore warranted broad protection under the law.