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Sunday, 11 November 2012 23:33

Clock shock: Apple's timely $21m payment to Swiss railways

Apple clock left - SBB railway clock right Apple clock left - SBB railway clock right

There might be 24 hours in a day, but there's a reported 21 million dollars in payment from Apple to the Swiss national railway operator SBB after the company protested Apple's pilfering of its famous clock design.

Although Apple is usually the company dishing out lawsuits, it does happen from time to time that various companies make claims, genuine or otherwise, against the great Californian cruncher that is global tech behemoth, Apple.

This particular claim came from the Swiss SBB national railway, which among other things is famous for its simple and iconic clock face, desgined in 1944 by Swiss engineer Hans Hilfiker and still used on Swiss railway platforms today, with the iconic clock design supposed to be "exclusively" licensed to the Mondiane Watch Group. Indeed, Mondaine says it is surprised that SBB has licensed the clock face to Apple, according to a Reuters report.

In any case, it's this classic and decades-old clock face design that Apple seemed to borrow liberally from when creating its long awaited native clock app for iPads - and one that Apple borrowed from without checking with SBB first.

As widely reported at the time, SBB was quick to protest not long after the release of the iOS 6.0 upgrade for compatible iPads, pointing out the clear and present similarities, and no doubt setting off a major series of sqwaks for its legal division of angry-bird eagles and those of Apple's.

In addition to Reuters' report, linked above, comes a report from news giant AFP, quoting a Swiss newspaper, which suggests that SBB has received a 20m Swiss franc payment from Apple last month in October, equalling approximately US $21m, in payment for licensing of the famous clock face.   

Although AFP report that SBB's spokespeople were previously happy to acknowledge it was set to meet with Apple to discuss the issue, AFP were unable to get SBB to officially say anything in confirmation of this report.

However, Reuters report SBB stating that"For the use of the clockface on certain Apple devices such as iPads and iPhones, the parties have negotiated an arrangement that enables Apple to use the SBB station clock under a license agreement".

So, not even the mighty Apple can get away without being very closely inspired by someone else's design and not having to cough up the fees if caught doing so - in this case, Apple has clocked up a hefty $20+ million dollar sum, although one that's easy for Apple to pay when it has billions in the bank.

Ultimately, it's a timely reminder that even if, as Steve Jobs noted, that "good artists copy, and great artists steal", there still might come a time when you need to pay the piper - with originality always your best bet to avoiding imperial patent and copyright entanglements.

It also helps to be really successful like Apple with excellent cashflow and profits so you can always pay your way out of any licensing clock-ups!


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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