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Split decision on iMac look-alikes

The litigation never ends for Apple - this time it accused Future Power of copying its iMac design

When is an iMac not an iMac? The world may never know. After an extended legal battle played out almost as much in the arena of geek opinion as in the courts, Apple and Future Power this week settled an Apple lawsuit that claimed Future Power aped the design of its iMac with a curvy all-in-one Windows system.

Lynn Fox, Apple's manager for corporate media relations, confirmed that the two companies had settled the lawsuit. However, she declined to comment on the specifics of the settlement.

Under the terms of the settlement, a November 1999 preliminary injunction against Future will remain in force until 1 February, 2004, preventing the company from selling its E-Power "monocomputer" with a 15in CRT screen.

However, the settlement will let Future Power produce and sell another all-in-one unit with a 17in screen. In its press release noting the settlement, Future Power included detailed specifications for the new computer, called the AIO, although it didn't specify when it would be available.

Introduced at the June 1999 PC Expo, the E-Power sported a curved, translucent case in blue and white, the color scheme of the original iMac. Within a week, Apple filed suit against the company and its joint-venture partner, Daewoo Telecom of South Korea, on so-called "trade-dress" issues. The suit requested that Future Power and Daewoo cease distributing the systems and award Apple actual and punitive damages.

In November of that year, the US District Court in San Jose handed down a preliminary injunction against Future Power and Daewoo that blocked the distribution and sales of the E-Power. At the time, representatives of Future Power said that they were undeterred and would soon introduce a redesigned version without a translucent chassis. However, such plans did not seem to come about.

The legal waters were further roiled in July 1999 when Apple also brought suit against eMachines, which brought to market its own blue-and-white, translucent, all-in-one Windows-based PC, the eOne. In February 2000, eMachines and Apple reached an agreement that allowed eMachines to produce a redesigned eOne but stopped all sales and distribution of the contested model.

Ironically, Apple's settlement with Future Power seems to be asking for more legal wrangling. In Future Power's press release announcing the settlement, company spokespman Bill Voecks mentioned that the upcoming 17in AIO would be cased in "colored, translucent plastic," echoing some of the design elements that prompted the original suit.

And then there's the name. In 1998 Apple sold a series of all-in-one Power Macintosh models called the AIO.

Trade dress is an adjunct to trademark laws; it is considered an unregistered trademark and can protect a product or service's shape, appearance, color, packaging or sales method against copying by a competitor.

To prove trade-dress violation, the company filing a complaint must demonstrate both that the product's trade dress is distinctive in consumers' minds and that the competing product's appropriation of that trade dress is likely to confuse customers into thinking that the second product is somehow affiliated with the first company or is approved by it.

One example of the latter was a successful suit filed by Ferrari to block the sale of "replicars".

Some trade-dress cases are also based on the concept of dilution. In these, the charge is that an imitating product can reduce the sense of quality of the goods or services represented by the original.

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