Friday, October 8, 1999
A recent decision by the Tokyo District Court is being cited by observers as a milestone in the development of Japanese intellectual property rights and unfair competition law. The Japanese subsidiary of Apple Computer Inc. filed a complaint August 24 with the Tokyo court, charging Yokohama-based Sotec Co., Ltd. with copying the appearance of its very popular iMac personal computer and seeking an injunction against Sotec for producing or selling its "e-one" knock-off in Japan.
The Tokyo District Court agreed with Apple Computer, issuing a temporary injunction September 20. Even though the copycat machine sells for hundreds less than the Apple original and is based on the Windows operating system, the court said that the e-one is so similar in appearance to the iMac that consumers might mistakenly confuse the two products. Sotec is undeterred, promising to appeal the decision and rolling out a replacement model just a few days later. While the new model's dimensions and shape are identical to the banned e-one, its color has been changed to one very different from the iMac's. The Sotec machine, which actually is produced in South Korea, also is marketed in the United States by eMachines Inc. Apple Computer is seeking similar relief from U.S. courts against what it calls unfair competition from the iMac clone.
Japanese companies are reviewing the Apple/Sotec case closely. It has been a traditional Japanese business practice, especially in the consumer electronics field, for manufacturers to rush "me-too" products to market when the original is a hot-seller. The Tokyo District Court decision has drawn a line that will limit the introduction of products that mimic the appearance of competing goods, but it is not clear exactly where this line lies. Intellectual property specialists say that courts will have to decide on a case-by-case basis when an item crosses the line between "similar" and "copy."