I’m pretty firmly on Apple’s side when it comes to Epic’s current lawsuit against them. However, I’ve also been pretty clear that I believe that they are going to have to change some of the App Store’s policies to restore balance to the iOS ecosystem and good faith with developers. Unfortunately, if anything, Apple seems to be doubling down on harsh enforcement of both the rules and protection of their ecosystem and its branding since Tim Cook appeared before the House Antitrust Subcommittee.
Apples to Pears
Recently, Apple decided to file opposition to a trademark request from a small recipe planning company called Prepear. Why? It looks like for no other reason than the fact that another company dared to use a fruit logo with a leaf pointing to the right. Take a look at the logos compared above. Is there any chance that anyone could confuse the two? Do you think they are trying to piggyback off of Apple’s branding in any way, shape or form? I don’t see how any reasonable person could answer yes to either question.
I’ve heard some mention that you have to defend your trademark against any remote possibility of infringement to be able to have a leg to stand on if another company actually does infringe. However, I just can’t buy that as an excuse for Apple taking the fight to company with a staff of 5 people. They aren’t even a tech company. Apple couldn’t look more petty if they tried in this course of action, and I’m certainly not the only one who thinks so.
Prepear has taken their case public, gathering over 220,000 signatures in support of their situation at Change.org. I guess they did this in hopes that, with all of the negative press surrounding Apple at the moment, the company would back off when faced with more over what seems to be a trivial issue. Apple’s response? They’ve doubled down by opposing Prepear’s trademark application in Canada, as well. Come on, Apple. Really?
An Automatic response
Just yesterday, Apple was in the news yet again. While the release of correspondence from Epic’s Tim Sweeney asking for the special deal that he originally claimed he didn’t seemed to turn a lot of public sentiment against Epic in that suit, Apple still managed to make a mess somewhere else. Late yesterday afternoon, this Tweet from Matt Mullenweg, developer of the free and open source web software WordPress caused quite the stir.
Heads up on why @WordPressiOS updates have been absent… we were locked by App Store. To be able to ship updates and bug fixes again we had to commit to support in-app purchases for .com plans. I know why this is problematic, open to suggestions. Allow others IAP? New name?
— Matt Mullenweg (@photomatt) August 21, 2020
So an app that doesn’t sell anything has to start offering in-app purchases to be able to submit new updates? This looked incredibly shady at first, but a later tweet shed a little more light on the situation.
When I open the Help Center from the app, I can get guidance about upgrading to one of your paid plans. If I tap on “Plans” as seen the screenshot, the app opens Safari and shows the plans. This is a violation according to App Store Review Guidelines. pic.twitter.com/peTcdn5DZo
— Mysk (@mysk_co) August 21, 2020
It seems that these mentions of paid services elsewhere are the reason for Apple taking aim at the WordPress app. Even though they have obviously missed the presence of this content, possibly even for years, now they are saying that the app has run afoul of the rules. While I and many others personally take issue with how arbitrary the rules blocking any mention of paid services outside of the App Store the App Store that aren’t available via in-app purchase, this is the rule, currently. Apple does have the right under their Terms of Service to object.
Where I take issue is with the fact that Apple is insisting that Automatic add in-app purchases for domains to the WordPress app, rather than allowing the alternative. That would be Automatic removing all mention of said services from the Help sections of the app. This has been done by MANY other developers in other market segments. Why would Apple not allow Automatic what seems to be a perfectly valid path forward?
This seems like an ideal first case for the new review process that Apple announced at WWDC. I would love to see Matt Mullenweg and Automatic put Apple on the spot here and demand an answer on why they can’t use the same solution that others have been able to. Why do they suddenly have to sell a service that doesn’t directly relate to the WordPress app’s functionality. All of this is exactly why I think, whether by their choice or government force, Apple is going to have an appeal process that ultimately can lead to binding independent arbitration. That is the only way to insure accountability in these kinds of situations.
I have to applaud Matt Mullenweg in his handling of this situation. Where Tim Sweeney and Epic have gone the court of public opinion route (including tying to piggyback on this situation today), Mullenweg has taken a much different path.
I am a big believer in the sanctity of licenses. (Open source relies on licenses and copyright.) We agreed to this license when we signed up for (and stayed in) the app store, so going to follow and abide by the rules. Not looking to skirt it, hence doing what they asked us to.
— Matt Mullenweg (@photomatt) August 21, 2020
I can’t support the self-aggrandizing Tim Sweeney and the way he is trying to capitalize on a moment for his and his company’s own gain. I can wholeheartedly absolutely support a developer who is doing everything he can to play by the rules and handles things in a way that is completely above board. Apple is in the wrong here, if not by the letter of the law, then definitely by the spirit of it. If Mr Mullenweg feels he can’t fight this battle directly with Apple, then in this case, Apple fans and the tech community need to step up and do it for him and Automatic.
Update: It seems that Apple wised up on this one a little while after I wrote this article, possibly due to all of the mounting pressure on them on different fronts. Automatic submitted an updates with all references and links to paid services removed and Apple accepted it.
Apple released a statement saying the following:
“We believe the issue with the WordPress app has been resolved. Since the developer removed the display of their service payment options from the app, it is now a free, stand-alone app and does not have to offer in-app purchases. We have informed the developer and apologize for any confusion that we have caused.”
Their own worst enemy
Apple may be right to fight back against Epic. They should be able to run a closed ecosystem if they choose to and they have the right to make some money from their App Store. And any company should be able to stand up to legitimate trademark infringement.
All that said, Apple isn’t fighting against a company taking advantage of their IP. They are picking on a small business that helps people prepare healthy recipes. They can’t just choose a new logo since Apple has it in for any piece of fruit. They would have to change the name and all marketing surrounding the company. There just isn’t any valid defense for what Apple is doing here.
There really isn’t a good explanation why Apple won’t let Automatic simply remove references to unrelated services from their app, either. This wasn’t some company trying to skit the rules. The WordPress app had links to web-based help articles where you could find this information. Again, this wasn’t Automatic tying to have their cake and eat it too. The references to paid services available on their website are there for people using their WordPress.com website.
In both of these cases, Apple would be best served by just backing the hell off. There is nothing positive to be gained beyond a very small amount of extra money from in-app purchases on WordPress. On the flip side, there’s a ton a negative press to be had and additional ire to be whipped up between US and European regulators. And it’s deserved this time. Apple is overshadowing their legitimate arguments with bad corporate behavior. At times, Apple is its own worst enemy and this definitely looks like one of those periods.
Tim Cook, this is your show. Get this under control, or governments are going to do it for you.