Today in 1988: Apple Files Lawsuit Against Microsoft for Copyright Infringement

The Mac versus PC Debate: A Blast from the Past

If you were tuned in to the world of computing in the 1990s, chances are you were well aware of the ongoing debate between Mac and PC. This fiery rivalry played a significant role in shaping the computing landscape of that era. However, amidst all the passion and animosity, one event stood out as a defining moment: Apple’s decision to sue Microsoft for copyright infringement on March 17, 1988.

Microsoft’s Windows 2.0 and Apple’s Accusations

Apple’s lawsuit followed closely on the heels of Microsoft’s launch of Windows 2.0, a substantial improvement over its predecessor. According to Apple executives, this progress came at a price: Microsoft had allegedly copied Macintosh’s visual displays without obtaining proper licensing.

To set the stage, let’s take a moment to appreciate the concept of the graphical user interface (GUI) that we often take for granted today. At the time, this idea was revolutionary and largely attributed to Apple’s innovative approach. As described in a New York Times article covering the lawsuit, GUI offered a window-based display and allowed users to interact with objects and menus using a mouse – a key feature that set Macintosh apart from the competition.

(And yes, I hope you found that description as amusing as I did.)

Microsoft’s Early Access to Macintosh

Before we delve deeper, let’s revisit the story behind Microsoft’s involvement. Bill Gates and his team were the first external developers to gain access to a Macintosh prototype prior to its official release in 1984. Microsoft’s task was to develop productivity software, such as word processors and spreadsheets, for the Mac.

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Gates quickly fell in love with the Mac OS, and following the public introduction of the Macintosh, he fervently urged Apple to license its software to outside manufacturers. His vision was for the Macintosh to become the standard in personal computing.

While there has been speculation surrounding Gates’s motivations, he later clarified that Microsoft’s profit margins for software on MacOS were significantly higher than those on IBM’s licensed MSDOS platform.

Despite Gates’s passionate proposal, Jean-Louis Gassée, who assumed control of the Macintosh and Lisa projects after Steve Jobs was ousted, rejected the idea for various reasons.

Microsoft’s Windows 1.0 and Apple’s Frustration

In November 1985, Microsoft released Windows 1.0, which raised concerns among Apple employees. They believed that Microsoft had appropriated several design elements from the Mac operating system, prompting Apple to consider legal action.

Given the close relationship between the two companies (Microsoft’s productivity software significantly contributed to Macintosh sales), they eventually reached an agreement. Apple granted Microsoft a license to use Macintosh design features in Windows.

However, for some reason, Apple’s legal team did not realize that the agreement covered the use of Apple features not only in Windows 1.0 but also in all future Microsoft software programs.

You can only imagine Apple’s surprise when Windows 2.0 hit the market, complete with even more design elements directly copied from the Macintosh operating system.

Apple’s outrage was so extreme that they skipped sending threatening letters or making phone calls, opting instead to file a lawsuit. And today, we commemorate the 31st anniversary of that historic lawsuit.

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The Legal Battle and Apple’s Disappointment

Unfortunately for Apple, on July 25, 1989, Judge William Schwarzer ruled that out of the 189 visual displays contested by Apple, 179 were covered by the existing license, and the remaining ten were not eligible for copyright protection due to the merger doctrine, which holds that ideas cannot be copyrighted.

After numerous appeals, the legal battle came to an end on February 21, 1995, when the Supreme Court rejected Apple’s petition for writ of certiorari.

In retrospect, it may be challenging to grasp the magnitude of this loss for Apple, considering its current dominance in the computing and electronics markets. During the mid- to late-90s, Windows surged in popularity, while Apple’s Macintosh struggled to keep up. By 1996, Apple seemed to be on the brink of failure.

However, everything turned around after the return of Steve Jobs to Apple as an advisor, catapulting the company back onto the path of growth. This trajectory persists to this day.

But prior to this remarkable turnaround, the lawsuit and its ultimate failure symbolized Apple’s fortunes throughout most of the 1990s. Though its legal significance may fade in history’s eyes, it remains a significant milestone in the world of computing and technological advancements.

Embrace Innovation and Legal Compliance

Even the biggest and most influential companies can face substantial setbacks. To ensure your firm remains at the forefront, embrace the latest technology and stay abreast of legal changes and updates.

Image Source: Garrity Traina