Favorite tort ingredient? Apples (or so it seems)

What is it about the apple? Milton called it "The fruit/ Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste/ Brought death into the world and all our woe."

Not to mention lawsuits. In a modern-day garden, Eve would sue the serpent for causing consumer confusion.

Apple Computer presented testimony in a Beijing court last week, contesting the refusal of China's trademark appraisal committee to let it use its signature apple logo on clothing. (Yes, clothing. Get ready for a T-shirt that crashes periodically for no apparent reason.)

The trouble started last June, when the committee denied Apple's request, noting that the computermaker's symbol is too similar to one already registered by Guangdong Apples Industrial, a purveyor of belts, bags, and shoes.

According to The People's Daily, Apple Computer's lawyer, Jia Zhanying, characterized Guangdong as "a company that makes alleged illegal profits while continuously attempting to infringe on the US company's trademark." And besides, the complaint continues, Guangdong's logo is nothing like Apple's. Guangdong, you see, uses a whole apple, while Apple's apple has a bite missing from the side. Hungry yet?

Mr. Zhanying clarified the issue by pointing out that his client's trademark symbol "looks like a three-legged horse, and so will be absolutely different from a four-legged horse. The three-legged one is very easy to tell from many horses in terms of appearance."

So far, the court has ignored the fact that both three- and four-legged horses eat apples.

Now, insects are joining this animal-fruit fight: The Beatles' record label is suing Apple Computer in London. Apparently, when Apple added audio functions to its machines in the late 1980s, the label - Apple Corp. - sued for trademark infringement. Under a 1991 settlement, the computermaker agreed to stay out of the music business, using "Apple" only for tech products. But, Apple Corp. contends, the new iPod digital music players and iTunes download software violate the agreement.

The mess bears (please, no more animals!) an uncanny resemblance to a trademark case from 1986, when fast-food giant McDonald's sued bakery and restaurant chain McBagel's Inc. The court ruled in favor of McDonald's, finding that the company had successfully created public recognition of the "Mc family," a decision that ruined dinner for half the residents of Scotland. Throwing their supersized weight around, in 1987 McDonald's went after Quality Inns for daring to use "McSleep," a term that must be occurring to anyone who's read this far. The prefix "Mc," the burgermaker successfully argued, belongs to it alone. Except, apparently, when you buy a "Mac." (Would you like files with that?)

At this point, the two American companies may begin to expand their powerful trademark protection to include a whole range of prefixes and a healthy variety of fruits, vegetables, and invertebrates. The goal, every plaintiff insists, is to avoid consumer confusion.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

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