Apple battles Woolworths over new logo

When Woolworths, one of Australia's largest retailers, created an apple-shaped logo in 2008, the move largely went unnoticed. But a few months later, when the company sought a blanket trademark that would allow it to put its new icon on an array of products, a more famous Apple cried foul. Apple Inc (AAPL), the iconic American computer firm, is currently fighting Woolworths rebranding in Australian court, claiming that the retailer may use its new logo to cut in on the computer company's market share.

This isn't the first time that Apple has gone into battle over copyright infringement. Its most famous fight has been with Apple Corps Ltd., the company in charge of the Beatles' music library; their repeated skirmishes are often cited as the reason that the Beatles' songs have yet to appear on iTunes. Beyond its battle with the Beatles, however, Apple's opponents have included Cisco, New York City, a Canadian business school, and Carl Sagan.

For that matter, Woolworths has a long and somewhat twisted relationship with copyright infringement. The company's original name was "Wallworths Bazaar," a play on America's respected F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime stores. However, when Wallworths owners discovered that the name "Woolworth" was available in Australia, they decided to register it. Consequently, the Australian Woolworths got its start by trading on the value underlying a well-known foreign company.

Ironically, the new Woolworths apple logo is part of a strategy to rebrand away from a respected American brand. In 1985, Woolworth's purchased Safeway's stores in Australia. For years, it played around with name changes, sticking with the Safeway name in some areas, switching to Woolworths in others, and changing the name Woolworths to Safeway in still others. Starting in 2008, the company began shifting all its supermarkets to the Woolworths brand, using the new logo as a visual link to connect all stores.

In copyright infringement cases involving large American companies, there is a tendency to paint such conflicts as David and Goliath struggles. In the case of Woolworths, however, this might be better characterized as a fight between a Goliath and a bigger Goliath battle. Woolworths is the largest retail company in Australia, and the 19th largest retailer in the world. It dominates retail food and liquor sales in the country, and is the region's largest hotel owner. More to the point, it also owns two electronics chains, and won't rule out the possibility that it could produce cell phones, music players, and computers that would put it in direct competition with Apple's iPod, iPhone, and Macintosh products.

The logic underlying Apple's suit is clear: the company relies on a strong reputation to propel sales of its high-priced consumer electronics. If Woolworths is allowed to produce in-house products with a similar logo, it could easily trade on Apple's reputation to push its products. What's more, with Internet sales collapsing the global marketplace, the Apple-Woolworth conflict could easily spread far beyond Australia's boundaries.

Would Woolworth's do such a thing? Perhaps we should ask F.W. Woolworth.

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