Apple and SBB cool off dispute over iconic watch

SBB watch
A few weeks ago Apple released its new mobile operating system iOS6, which has already attracted a good deal of attention. Besides the bugs in the new Maps app, also the clock display used did not look quite right. Or, better, it looked something like a déjà vu
Switzerland's railway operator SBB claimed in fact that Copertino-based technology giant copied the design of its station clock without permission. What makes SBB clock special is in particular its red second hand which resembles the railway signal once used by controllers to signal to train drivers that they could leave. 
Both the London Design Museum and the New York MoMa included SBB clock among examples of outstanding 20th century design.
As pointed out by SBB spokesman Christian Ginsing, SBB watch is registered as a trademark and, with all likelihood, is also protected by copyright. As reported on SwissInfo, since 1986 Swiss watchmaker Mondaine has been licensed to make wall clocks, desk models and wristwatches based on the design. 
Apple watch
In any case, the dispute between SBB and Apple (which has a well-known reputation for defending its own IP rights vigorously) did not last long. A couple of days ago SBB and Apple announced that they have reached an agreement on the use of SBB station clock. SBB official press release is written in German. The translation provided by Google reads as follows:  
"The Swiss Federal Railways SBB and Apple have reached an agreement on the use of the SBB station clock on devices like iPad and iPhone. That the two parties have governed in a license agreement.
For the use of the SBB station clock on devices like iPad and iPhone, the Swiss Federal Railways SBB and Apple have agreed and signed a license agreement. The parties have agreed to give the amount of the license fee as well as other details about the Convention any further information.
Kat watch
The Railway station clock was built in 1944 by engineer and designer Hans Hilfiker designed for SBB. It is a design icon, obvious matters in the digital age well. Special feature of the so-called "scoop dial" is the striking red second hand, which has the form of a signal trowel. To date, [it] is a symbol of innovation and reliability is an important identifying feature of the SBB and Switzerland represents [As clarified by The Register, all the SBB clocks synchronise with a master time controller every minute, ensuring that passengers can be sure that the trains are running on time. The red second hand completes a full sweep every 58.5 seconds and then uses the spare 1.5 second for synchronisation]."

This Kat believes that there is still something strange in this story. 
Firstly, why did not Apple approach SBB to get a licence? As commented by Forbes, while it is entirely possible that others will have created designs that you wish to include into your devices, "the trick is to ask them, negotiate with them, gain a license from them, before you release the product, not afterwards. Otherwise people might think you’re acting a bit like Samsung or something."
Secondly, exclusive licensee Mondaine was not involved in the negotiation of the licensing agreement at any stage. "As an exclusive licensee, we are surprised to hear about the licensing agreement between SBB and Apple," Ronnie Bernheim, the company's co-owner, told Reuters. However, he declined to say whether he would take any further action.
Apple and SBB cool off dispute over iconic watch Apple and SBB cool off dispute over iconic watch Reviewed by Eleonora Rosati on Sunday, October 14, 2012 Rating: 5


  1. "Otherwise people might think you’re acting a bit like Samsung or something"

    Surely the point here is that Apple that behaved like er, Apple? cf Steve Jobs about the difference between good artists and great artists.

    Are you not above propagating s snarky side swipe at Samsung who, it seems, are doing a nice job of undermining thr recent jury decision

  2. The reason why Apple did not just seek to licence the use of the clock design may be in part explained by the story of another copyright dispute between Apple and a Swiss copyright owner, also reported on in the Register here: The Register

  3. German railway clocks also pause briefly on the top of the minute but are slightly different design: there is a red ring instead of a disk, and it is placed at a slightly more inward position. Apple could license that one too.

    I wanted to point out the bit about synchronisation, but the item had alread been corrected.

    There's a story that young Einstein was involved with clock synchronisation during his stint as a clerk at the Berne patent office, and that during his daydreaming he would reflect upon the meaning of the identical times in two different locations, and maybe of trains going at superluminous velocities. I don't know whether this story is apocryphal.

    I couldn't find a old, good looking, patent for these clocks. There is at the Deutsches Museum in Munich a master clock of the former Bundesbahn, which I believe was in working condition when I saw it a decade ago.

  4. The Deutschebahn clock design also differs in that the hour and minute hands end at the central axis.

  5. With regard to the last point, one (probably obvious) answer is that an exclusive licensee won't necessarily have an exclusive license in all fields. From a quick internet search, Mondaine appear to be primarily involved in making and selling watches. I wouldn't be surprised if their license to the SBB design is limited to watches and other timepieces and does not include smartphone apps or similar software.

  6. This story raises an interesting (well at least to me) question. Can the sale of a device including a piece of operating software be an infringement of a registered design if the software when operating causes the device to display an object resembling the design? Also, if the design is a registered TM, is such an app being used as a TM? Perhaps copyright is the better weapon to wave.


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