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Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp., 709 F.Supp. 925, 10 U.S.P.Q.2d (BNA) 1677 (N.D. Cal. 1989) (full-text); 779 F.Supp. 133, 20 U.S.P.Q.2d (BNA) 1236 (N.D. Cal. 1991) (full-text); 799 F.Supp. 1006 (N.D. Cal. 1992), aff'd, 35 F.3d 1435, 32 U.S.P.Q.2d (BNA) 1086 (9th Cir. 1994) (full-text), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1184 (1995).

Factual Background[]

On March 17, 1988, Apple Computer, Inc. filed suit in the federal district court in San Jose against Microsoft Corporation and Hewlett-Packard Company. Apple claimed that version 2.03 of Microsoft's Window's operating environment computer software and H-P's New Wave desktop computer software which operates with Windows, both infringed the audiovisual copyrights in Apple's Macintosh visual displays and images.

Since its introduction in the Apple Lisa personal computer in 1983, the Macintosh "desktop metaphor" had become a hallmark of Apple's approach to personal computers. The desktop metaphor embodied in the Macintosh personal computer built on the work originally developed by Xerox in its "Xerox Star" personal computer. Xerox never successfully marketed the Star, and Xerox had exited the hardware side of the personal computer marketplace.

Apple had been quite successful with the Macintosh. It has also been successful in having the Copyright Office register the Macintosh desktop and application software visual displays as audiovisual works and the Macintosh program code as literary works. The registration certificates attached to the complaint showed that Apple attempted to register all aspects of authorship embodied in the Macintosh computer programs including their audiovisual displays. Apple's case against Microsoft and HP claimed infringement of its graphic user interface.

District Court Proceedings[]

In an early decision, the district court found that certain screen displays were licensed by Apple to Microsoft under the terms of a written non-exclusive "license to use these derivative works in present and future software programs." This license agreement was the subject of some intense license negotiations between Apple and Microsoft at a time when Apple was in need of additional software applications from Microsoft.[1]

In the litigation, Microsoft acknowledged that certain visual displays in its Windows operating environment were licensed from Apple and "are [derivative work]]s of the visual displays generated by Apple's Lisa and Macintosh graphic user interface programs."[2] Upon the court's finding that the license agreement extended beyond a single version of Windows, a large number of screen displays and elements contained therein which might otherwise have been the subject of the copyright infringement action were removed from the controversy by summary judgment in Microsoft's favor with regard to the licensing issue.

Notwithstanding the adverse determination on the license issue, Apple submitted a list of 189 alleged similarities in categories such as:

  1. design and appearance of application windows;
  2. design and appearance of dialog boxes;
  3. menu design and appearance;
  4. design and appearance of individual applications;
  5. icon design, appearance, and manipulation; and
  6. arrangement and manipulation of application windows.

In discussing the problem of determining idea and expression, the court noted the "metaphysical line drawing between idea and expression by which courts rationalize their decisions."[3] Further, the court initially accepted Apple's argument in favor of the overall "look and feel" protection for the Macintosh user interface:

Accordingly, the court concludes that even if elements are found 'unprotectable,' they should not be eliminated from the substantial similarity of expressions analysis. Instead, if it is determined that the defendant used the unprotectable elements in an arrangement which is not substantially similar to the plaintiff's work, then no copyright infringement can be found. If, on the other hand, the works are deemed substantially similar, then copyright infringement will be established even though the copyrighted work is composed of unprotectable elements. There is simply no other logical way of protecting an innovative arrangement or 'look and feel' of certain works.[4]

Upon reconsideration, the district court ultimately rejected Apple's approach and instead stated:

To the extent the individual features of the Macintosh interface are licensed or are unprotectable they are together, or in conjunction with the protectable features, claimed as a copyrightable arrangement — a "look and feel" which constitutes protectable expression apart from its individual elements.[5]

The claimed unifying idea of the Lisa and Macintosh works is 'an interface suggestive of an office environment with a desktop background, implementing through animated graphical images and fanciful symbols what has been referred to as a 'desktop metaphor.' Id. [I]f "desktop metaphor" is to have any meaning in the context of a traditional copyright analysis, it should serve merely as a label for that group of "ideas" embodied in the Macintosh interface devoted to utilitarian uses of that computer, or as a shorthand way of describing the purpose or object of the panoply of ideas of multiple windows, iconic representation and manipulation, menus and object opening and closing functions to assist computer users in operation of their machines. "Desktop metaphor" does not describe the single unifying idea of the Macintosh interface, but is simply another name for the type of interface used on the Macintosh and is by no means exclusive to it.[6]


  1. The negotiations are described by John Sculley in his autobiography entitled Odyssey.
  2. 709 F. Supp. at 927.
  3. 779 F. Supp. 133, 135 (N.D. Cal. 1991).
  4. Id. at 136.
  5. Id. at 1022.
  6. Id. at 1026.