In 1813, Thomas Jefferson had this to say about patents: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” A noble thought indeed, but try telling that to two parties locked in a multimillion-dollar court case over a bagless vacuum cleaner. And with no shortage of jealously guarded ideas in the world, major intellectual property disputes are never in short supply. As Bill Gates supposedly said, “intellectual property has the shelf life of a banana.”
In 2018, Draion M. Burch, a gynecologist and the author of 20 Things You May Not Know About the Vagina, trademarked the name Dr. Drai. No one in the world had a problem with that, apart from Andre Romelle Young, better known as Dr. Dre. The rapper tried to prevent the trademark, arguing that the public would be confused at the similarity of the names. The U.S. trademark office, however, sided with the real doctor, quite reasonably arguing that the public would be unlikely to confuse a rapper with a gynecologist.
Plenty of big name movies have been plagued by lawsuits, but one of the strangest intellectual property cases was that of tattoo artist Victor Whitmill vs. Warner Bros. Whitmill was the artist responsible for Mike Tyson’s facial tattoo, and he wasn’t happy when the design was replicated on the face of Stu (Ed Helms) in The Hangover Part II. He took Warner Bros. to court over the issue of the “original tattoo” and almost derailed the release of the movie. In the end, Warner Bros. settled the claim for an undisclosed amount.
High fashion and dog toys don’t often come into conflict, but they did in 2006 when Louis Vuitton sued Haute Diggity Dog for trademark, trade dress, and copyright infringement. Haute Diggity Dog, a designer and manufacturer of parody plush dog toys, provoked Louis Vuitton’s wrath with its furry “Chewy Vuiton” dog chews. Louis Vuitton argued the toys were likely to cause confusion. The federal appeals court, however, didn’t side with the French fashion house, finding that Chewy Vuiton was “a joking and amusing parody” [PDF] and nothing more.
Back in the 17th century, mathematicians Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz went head to head in a bitter argument over who had invented calculus. In the mid-1660s, Newton began working on his form of calculus, which he called “the method of fluxions and fluents.” Leibniz began work on his calculus around 1673, but neither man published any serious paper on the subject until years later. The argument reached a peak around 1711 [PDF], when both scholars and their supporters engaged in a fully fledged, retrospective war of words about who deserved the credit. Today, most people accept that they developed their ideas independently. But Leibniz died poor and dishonored, while Newton was given a state funeral.
A year after the release of 1977’s Star Wars, which was retitled Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope upon its 1981 re-release, Universal Studios produced its own space opera, the TV series Battlestar Galactica and its pilot film Saga of a Star World. Twentieth Century Fox, which produced Star Wars, was highly unimpressed with the similarities between the two and promptly filed a lawsuit against Universal. To support its case, Fox highlighted 34 supposed similarities between the two productions, including “a friendly robot, who aids the democratic forces”; spaceships that “are made to look used and old”; and the destruction of “an entire planet, central to the existence of the democratic forces.” Fox’s copyright claims were initially dismissed but later revived on appeal. The whole messy affair was later resolved without a trial.
When Microsoft released Windows 2.0 in December 1987, Apple Inc. went ballistic. Apple claimed Microsoft had copied the look and feel of the graphical user interface (GUI) used on its own Macintosh operating system. Apple filed a lawsuit against Microsoft in March 1988, kicking off a four-year legal dispute. The court finally ruled in favor of Microsoft, stating Apple’s arguments failed on the basis of originality. Some ideas were seen to be basic elements of a GUI desktop, including windows, icon images, menus and the ability to open and close objects.
The smartphone patent wars have been raging since 2009, and pretty much every smartphone manufacturer has been involved at some time. It’s no surprise, as a new smartphone can contain hundreds of thousands of patents, creating a tangled web of intellectual property disputes. Apple and Google have been going at it for years, the argument mainly revolving around the Android mobile operating system, which Apple co-founder Steve Jobs called a “stolen product.” Finally, in 2014, the two companies agreed to settle all patent litigation between them, ending one of technology’s highest-profile lawsuits. For now, at least.
How do you trademark three stripes? That’s the problem Adidas has been facing in both the U.S. and Europe, with varying results. In 2008, Adidas took Payless Shoesource Inc. to court, arguing the company’s two- and four-stripe designs were copied from the classic Adidas three-stripe design, but with one stripe added or removed. Adidas won the case and Payless was ordered to pay a hefty $304.6 million for trademark infringement. In Europe, however, things didn’t go so well. In 2016, Shoe Branding Europe applied to have Adidas’s trademark annulled, arguing it wasn’t distinctive enough. The EU intellectual property office sided with Shoe Branding Europe.
In 1999, the British inventor James Dyson took the Hoover Company to court. He argued that the vacuum cleaner industry giant had copied his Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, which had become the fastest-selling vacuum cleaner ever made in the UK. The two-year-long case became the David vs. Goliath battle of the floor-cleaning industry. Dyson came out on top, first rejecting an offer to settle the claim for £1 million, and later accepting a settlement offer of £4 million plus £2 million in legal costs.
Few people could have expected that the case of Barbie vs. Bratz would turn into one of the most epic intellectual property disputes of recent years. It all began with Carter Bryant, a 31-year-old designer who was working for Mattel, the creators of Barbie, in 2000. While working for Mattel, he came up with the idea for Bratz. He then sold his idea to MGA Entertainment, one of Mattel’s competitors, two weeks before he quit Mattel. Bratz became an international hit and the first dolls to rival Barbie since she first strutted onto the scene back in 1959. Chaos ensued: Mattel sued Bryant, then Mattel sued MGA, then MGA sued Mattel. Damages were awarded then reversed, counterclaims flew in every direction, and the whole thing was a mess. Things didn’t settle down until 2013, with no one entirely sure who had come out on top— save for the legions of lawyers involved in the whole debacle.
Napster, an online sharing service for digital audio files, faced the wrath of various parties for copyright infringement and numerous other claims. In 2000, Metallica became the first band to take on Napster, in the first legal case of its type. Dr. Dre, the Recording Industry Association of America, A&M Records, and various other record companies all filed similar lawsuits, and Napster was taken down a year later.
In 2010, photojournalist Daniel Morel posted his own photos of the 2010 Haiti earthquake onto his Twitter account. When Getty Images and Agence France-Presse used the images without his permission, Morel took them to court in what would become a landmark trial for online news agencies and digital journalists. Twitter’s own terms and conditions supported Morel’s case, but the trial nonetheless dragged on for three years. Morel was eventually awarded $1.2 million in damages.
When British nature photographer David Slater was hanging out with a group of Celebes crested macaques in Indonesia, he had no idea the storm that would come from his photography expedition. During his time with the monkeys, some of them picked up his camera and managed to take a few surprisingly good selfies. When Slater returned home, the fun photos were published in newspapers such as The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, and The Guardian. An editor at Wikimedia Commons, an online photo resource for free-license and public domain images, took the selfie photographs from The Daily Mail and uploaded them to the website. When Slater discovered this a few days later, he requested their removal. But Wikimedia Commons argued that the photos belonged to the monkeys, a position it maintains to this day (the U.S. Copyright Office agrees). On images such as this one and this one, the licensing note still reads: “This file is in the public domain, because as the work of a non-human animal, it has no human author in whom copyright is vested.” Slater was then taken to court in 2015, not by Wikimedia but by PETA, who used the “next friend” principle of law, which allows someone to sue in the name of another person—in this case, Naruto, one of the crested macaques. In 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the selfie-taking monkey, threw out the copyright lawsuit and heavily criticized PETA, stating that Naruto was “as an unwitting pawn in its ideological goals.”