Apple cracks down on Aqua 'skins'

The Mac maker has reportedly asked Stardock Corp. to remove Windows themes that resemble its Mac OS X interface.

In its latest move to protect the look and feel of its products, Apple Computer Inc.'s legal counsel on Thursday requested a Windows software company remove all themes and screen shots of themes resembling the Mac OS X Aqua interface from its Web site, saying they violate Apple's intellectual property (IP).

Stardock Corp. Inc. has complied with part of the request, according to its president, Brad Wardell, and has asked Apple (aapl) to clarify what it considers IP violations so as to head off future violations before they are posted.

The themes, or "skins," change interface elements ranging from color to window sizes to icons and fonts. Stardock is the maker of DesktopX, a program that lets users create their own customized desktop interfaces and change their functionality. Stardock encourages Windows users to design themes and then submit them to the company for possible free distribution to others via its Web site.

"Apple sent us a letter that listed a bunch of skins in DesktopX themes that they found objectionable," Wardell told MacCentral. "The ones that they found objectionable we think are pretty borderline, but we removed those...It's a fine line, so I asked them for guidelines for our volunteer moderators who post these skins."

Having removed the skins and themes to which Apple objected, Wardell said he has "drawn the line" on removal of screen shots of the Aqua-like skins until he discusses the matter with his legal counsel and receives further clarification from Apple. One such skin resembles the OS X Aqua interface in its color, gray-striped window backgrounds, bluish bars and silver trash can.

This isn't the first time Apple has taken aim at Aqua-inspired skins created with Stardock's tools. In January 2000, Apple's lawyers sent a letter to the Web site Skinz.org instructing it to take down a skin that resembled Apple's newly unveiled interface and allegedly contained elements of Apple's trademarked logo for Mac OS X. Skinz.org later posted a modified version of the skin that lacked those elements.

A fine line
"If we're hosting the skin, they can certainly ask us to take it down. If we agree that it violates their IP rights, then by all means I want to comply," he said. "But I'm not sure at this point how I feel about removing screen shots. If we did that, then they would have to go to every Web site, e-zine and whatever to have screen shots of OS X Aqua removed."

Wardell is concerned how far the issue could go, since many themes that don't copy the Aqua interface completely have "Aqua-inspired" features.

"That's where things get really murky," Wardell said. "What if we posted something that was inspired by Aqua, they objected and we remove it? If we do that for Apple, how do we know every single person that uploads something wasn't inspired by someone else's work? That creates an impossible situation for us to moderate...Again, I am discussing this issue with Apple and my legal counsel."

While some of the icons Apple questioned could be violations, Wardell said he is not sure if Apple objected to the icon itself or the fact that it was found under the heading "Aqua."

Wardell: Apple has rights
Wardell emphasized that Apple has rights in this matter and that it has not been unprofessional in its approach or dealings with Stardock.

"Every time a company tries to enforce their rights, they are always made out to be bad guys," he said. "The fact is Apple is trying to innovate, and if you take away their incentive to innovate, it hurts everybody. I think it's good to see Apple, within limits, protect their rights."

"We very strongly believe Apple has rights to protect its intellectual property up until they infringe on the rights of others," Wardell said. "We need to make sure we protect the rights of the 'skinny' community, too."

Apple was not immediately available for comment.

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