- Brian Conroy
Earlier this week, Apple announced a new type of wireless headphones at a media event in San Francisco. It called them “AirPods.”
That name would have sounded familiar if you read Apple trademark applications. In fact, it was hiding in plain sight since at least early 2015, when an Apple-aligned holding company first registered the trademark.
However, “AirPods” was registered under a dummy corporation called “Entertainment in Flight.”
In the run-up to Apple’s big reveal, Rennick Solicitors trademark lawyer Brian Conroy definitively linked Entertainment in Flight to Apple – and discovered a few other names Apple wanted to make sure it could name future products after, like Beats’ EP headphones, which were announced shortly after the event.
He also highlighted a number of trademarks Apple didn’t announce, but might one day, including “Today at Apple,” “Apple Touch Bar,” and “Apple Smart Button.”
“If Apple had just filed all their applications in the US, or wherever, the intrigue [before the iPhone launch] wouldn’t be nearly as palpable,” Controy told Business Insider. But Conroy is quick to warn that just because a company files a trademark doesn’t mean it’s planning a product.
Here’s how Apple hides its trademarks around the world, and how Conroy sleuthed them out.
It’s about priority
The point of registering a trademark is so that another company can’t use your name for a similar product. Those are the kind of routine applications that Conroy’s firm does on a regular basis.
But most trademark registrations are public record – which wouldn’t be good if a company like, say Samsung, figured out that “AirPods” must mean Apple is working on wireless headphones and rushed their own version onto the market.
But it would also be bad for Apple if it didn’t register “AirPods,” announced the name, and immediately went into a legal battle with another company that simultaneously claimed the name.
“I’d imagine that a brand like Apple doesn’t want to be calling its products one thing in one country and another in another,” Conroy said.
So what Apple does is it registers trademarks overseas in “far-flung” countries like Trinidad and Tobago, Brunei, Indonesia, or Jamaica. The date it applies there becomes the worldwide “priority date.” Then, when the product launches, Apple can legally claim it already had the trademark – without filing a public document in the US or EU.
“In simplified terms, the main benefit of it is that if you want to make a global application, you can make one home or host application, then you send one application to [the World Intellectual Property Organization],” Rennick said. Then WIPO sends your application on to the individual countries. “It can be a time and expense saver.”
Lots of companies do that. But where Apple goes above and beyond is that it specifically files its trademarks in countries that don’t upload their trademark databases online. Apple gets a priority date so that another company can’t take its trademark, but it also has enough cover that those files aren’t found easily.
“Apple applies for trademarks in countries that don’t have online searchable databases. That’s it in a nutshell, so it’s not physically possible without walking into the office where those applications were filed,” Conroy said.
That’s exactly what Conroy eventually had to do.
Thrill of the hunt
Conroy goes through nearly every trademark filed in the EU every morning, and the interesting ones usually stick out to him.
He noticed a few interesting applications – they used the same law firm as Apple, and they had previous priority registrations in “far flung places,” so he started pulling the thread. “I told my boss, I have a hunch where these might be, and I want to go look for them, but I could be wrong.”
“What I did was I got in touch with the patent offices themselves,” Conroy said. “They said you can search it in our office. Your option is either on get a plane or get someone who is there to go to their offices.”
Conroy thought about flying, but he got local trademark agents and other contacts to visit the offices in-person.
Ultimately, it worked out. Conroy found several Apple trademark applications filed in the past six months in the files of obscure trademark offices. (He’s also found unpublished trademarks from Samsung, Huawei, Toyota, and J.K. Rowling.)
When he first found unpublished Apple trademark applications, Conroy knew that he had found something special. He didn’t know his hunt was going to be successful.
“It’s kind of like when someone tells you a secret,” Conroy said. “I’m literally one of the fewest people in the world that know something like this exists.”
“You go through a lot of documents and trace a lot of dead ends before you got there. So there’s a moment of ‘I was right,'” Conroy said.