Cisco v. Apple: Whose iPhone is it anyway?

Cisco v. Apple: Whose iPhone is it anyway?

by Monica Sanders, December 2009

It's a phone; a PDA, a fully functional iPod, and it can save you from an oncoming train. With all the fanfare surrounding the new iPhone, one would think it is the cure for all our technology woes. However, not every techie around is excited about Apple's latest innovation. At least one company thinks the phone, or rather its name, is a rip-off.

Cisco systems has filed suit against Apple in a California federal court. The complaint alleges trademark infringement, unfair competition, false description and injury to business reputation. The suit focuses on the name "iPhone." Cisco claims it has owned the rights to the name "iPhone" since 2000. The trademark came as part of Cisco's buyout of a company called Infogear technology. According to court papers, Infogear first trademarked the name in 1996, way before Apple came up with the idea.

Cisco says the name was to be attached to a VOIP (voice over internet protocol) device the company developed. It says Apple is using the name it generated without permission. Cisco claims Apple's device bears similarities to a telephony device it developed and Apple's product will confuse consumers and dilute its identity in the marketplace.

Legitimate Lawsuit or Sour Apples?

Cisco claims Apple first asked for use of the iPhone name in 2001 and several more times in 2006. Cisco did not want to give up rights to the name. Besides accusing Apple of using the trademark without permission, Cisco also accuses Apple of using some backdoor methods to gain use of the name. Those include filing a patent application in Australia under another company name while filing an intent to use application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office at the same time. Cisco's spokesperson John Earnhardt said the company tried to make an arrangement to share the name with Apple. He says Apple left the negotiating table without reaching an agreement and used the name without Cisco's permission.

During the MacWorld convention in San Francisco, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said the iPhone had been in development for two and a-half years, well after Cisco trademarked the name. Apple has responded publicly to news of the lawsuit, calling it "silly" and "frivolous." Steve Dowling, the spokesperson for Apple, said there are several companies using the term 'iPhone' for telephony and VOIP products. He calls Cisco's trademark claim "tenuous at best," adding "We're the first company to ever use the iPhone name for a cellphone." Dowling went on to say he is confident his company will prevail against the lawsuit.

Customers May be the Judges

Meanwhile, Apple's iPhone was launched at MacWorld and is being advertised by wireless telephone companies, most notably Cingular. It has been generating buzz on early morning talk shows and online. While, the first customers do not have it in their hands just yet, analysts expect it will be as wildly popular as the company's market domineering iPod. Cisco launched its product, the Linkys iphone, three weeks earlier to a notably less excited audience.

Despite what happens with the companies' court battle, consumers may ultimately be the ones who decide which phone is truly the iPhone.