The settlements mean that the preliminary injunction granted by a Federal judge last November, which halted sales of the Emachines eOne on the grounds that it too closely resembled the industrial design of Apple's iMac, may be a taste of the future.
Apple's focus in these suites has been on violations of their "trade dress" -- essentially, seeking copyright which covers the appearance and design of a product rather than its functional aspect. The CNET article points out that "[h]istorically, the courts have not extended trademark protection to a product's design, but more recently, some have begun to grant trademark protection to 'stylized' items on the grounds that novel industrial design can communicate a distinctive idea or image."
Often, however, manufacturers file design patents as well, especially for products with new or unique industrial design. Given Apple's emphasis on ergonomics, color and ease of use, which concretize the abstract results of years of experimentation and testing, it seems likely that design patents will play an expanding role in the protection of their designs. But by no means will Apple be the only company fighting to establish brand identity with distinctive shapes and colors, and taking on imitators in court over trade dress or design patent violations.
dublin (the person who submitted this article) notes, "This could be ugly, because unlike regular patents (which can be readily challenged on the following grounds), design patents have no requirement for either 'utility' or 'non-obviousness to one reasonably schooled in the art.'" Can challenging or affirming a design patent, especially in the moving-target world of personal computers, be anything other than heavily subjective?
Even if the original decision was jutified, (no one is arguing that either the eOne or the Daewoo machines are based on anything other than the shape and color-appeal of the iMac), does this place us on a slippery slope? As dublin puts it, "Does Apple now have universal first dibs on anything wrapped in clear and aqua plastic? (If yes, then how about lime or the dreaded tangerine?)"