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A quick look back at Apple's copyright lawsuit against Microsoft filed 36 years ago today

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Apple and Microsoft have been major rivals for decades. Indeed, that rivalry can result in some heated disagreements. In late January 2024, Microsoft's Xbox President Sarah Bond posted on her X (formerly Twitter) account that in the company's view, Apple's attempt to comply with the European Union's app store rules was in fact "a step in the wrong direction" for the company.

However, it was Apple who made a pretty aggressive move a few decades ago. On March 17, 1988, 36 years ago today, the folks in Cupertino filed a lawsuit against the team in Redmond, claiming copyright infringement.

The Thomson Reuters site has posted a feature on this lawsuit, and more importantly the origins of this legal action. You may remember that in November 1983 Microsoft first announced plans to launch Windows 1.0, its graphical user interface operating system. However, the actual launch of Windows 1.0 didn't actually happen until November 1985.

Microsoft and its CEO Bill Gates reportedly got a chance to check out an early prototype of the Apple Macintosh computer, and its operating system before it launched. That was because Microsoft was planning to release Word and other software for the Mac. Gates reportedly loved the UI design for the Mac OS.

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After the Macintosh launched in January 1984, Gates reportedly went to Apple and suggested the company license its OS so it could be used by other PC makers, similar to how Microsoft offered its MS-DOS system to PC companies. However, Apple didn't want to make that move.

Then Microsoft finally launched Windows 1.0, and Apple was reportedly not happy. They threatened a lawsuit against Microsoft at that time, believing that the company had stolen UI designs from the Mac OS to use in Windows 1.0. However, in 1985, the two companies decided to make an agreement. Microsoft would pay some money to Apple to use Mac OS UI designs in Windows 1.0.

Apple's agreement also allowed Microsoft to use Mac OS graphical UI designs in future Windows releases, and not just with Windows 1.0. However, when Windows 2.0 launched in December 1987, which included using overlapping windows similar to the Mac OS, among other things, Apple felt that Microsoft went beyond the bounds of that 1985 agreement, and that's when plans were made for legal action.

As we mentioned, Apple officially filed a lawsuit against Microsoft, along with one against HP, on March 17, 1988. The New York Times reported on the lawsuit at the time, stating:

Apple said software programs sold by the two companies infringed on copyrights Apple held for the way information is presented and controlled on Macintosh screens. The programs are New Wave, sold by Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft's Windows version 2.03.

Apple tried to make the argument that 189 separate graphical user interface elements from the Mac OS were being used by Microsoft's Windows 2.0 without an agreement from Apple.

According to Freibrun Law, the US District Court ruled in 1992 that over 90 percent of those separate Mac OS GUI elements that Apple said were illegally taken by Microsoft for Windows 2.0 were already covered in the original 1985 agreement between Apple and Microsoft. The other elements that were not covered in that agreement "were primarily graphical symbols representing generic ideas or purely functional components of the program, or were insufficiently original to merit copyright protection."

Apple appealed this decision, but in 1994, in a 3-0 vote, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's decision in the case. Apple made a long-shot appeal to the US Supreme Court, but the court declined to hear the case in February 1995. This marked the end of what turned out to be a pretty fruitless legal fight for Apple.

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