Taxonomy of Form, or When 50+ Companies Copy Your Design

Apple Inc. sued Samsung in multiple countries starting in 2010 claiming “slavish” design copying­­­ of the iphone and ipad. Apple was ridiculed for ownership claims of “rounded rectangles” and was denied this part, in several jurisdictions and on appeal in the US, of otherwise partially successful litigation.

Historically 2010+ will be remembered for the spaghetti-like intellectual property mutual litigation between all global telecommunication technology development companies. Apple v. Samsung includes the only industrial design related IP litigation, other cases were software patent, copyright, and some integrated circuit topology disputes.

Lost in this hyperbolic debate is other intellectual property infringement, in this article we are going to discuss multiple examples of actual “slavish” design copying of Apple’s Mac mini form factor, and some history.

Apple Mac mini 2009
Apple Mac mini 2014

Pier design has a lot of experience with design of electronics packaging; we are always looking at what others are doing. We have noticed more than 50 new product introductions in multiple technology sectors copying Apple’s Mac mini industrial design form factor, varying from “slavish”:

Centrance

to “inspired by”:

Commodore
Serenade
Sonos
Ecobee
Sigmo

History Repeats

Apple’s Mac mini is not a unique design, Verner Panton designed a similar form factor in 1963 in the Wega audio equipment:

Wega
Wega

And a new close copy, although greatly reduced in size, the Chune “Tap”, with design process photos showing form development. It’s a pretty, neat package, regardless the “slavish” design copy of Verner Panton’s Wega is obvious, even if completely unintentional and unaware.

Chune

However, in 2009+ consumer electronics, Apple was first with this mildly unique industrial design form factor for a desktop computing device. All examples here came after and there is also intent: all these Apple Mac mini design copies are intended to appeal to Apple Mac mini users.

40 and More

More examples from different companies continuing the “slavish” to “inspired by” design copying of the Apple Mac mini form factor:

Asus
Asus
Asus
Auralic
Ayon Audio
Bakoon Audio
Bevy
Bluelounge
bluloc
Braun
Brother
Calyx Audio
Cirrus
Cubox
CYP Audio
D-Link
D-Link
D-Link
eero
iHomeaudio
Intel
iq Audio
iRobot
Meerkat
Merging+Nadac
Micromega
Microsoft
Monument
Nanotech
Nixie clock
Peachtree
Philips
Playgo
Queststyle
Rotel
Samsung
Streacom
Synergistic Research
t+a Audio
Tornado
Wadia (see below “To be Original is Possible”)
Yaro
Zotac
Evolution Audio (you just knew there would be a carbon fibre design)
 

Tragedy or Statistic

50 examples, a Stalinesque “one is a tragedy, 50 is a statistic”.

“This kind of blatant copying is wrong and, as we’ve said many times before, we need to protect Apple’s intellectual properties when companies steal our ideas.”

Apple Co. statement after a trial loss to Samsung in the UK

“Should Apple continue to make excessive legal claims in other countries based on such generic designs, innovation in the industry could be harmed and consumer choice unduly limited,”

Samsung statement after a trial win over Apple in the UK.

“We’ve been ripped off by everyone, Samsung in particular.”

Apple designer during US trial.

These otherwise very impressive technology companies are admitting either a weakness when they choose to copy banal industrial design or a market non-confidence in assuming only Apple users will purchase their equipment. In many cases industrial design is still ignored, deemed too expensive or not required, or purchased from a catalogue like the Streacom example, an empty computer case.

Form v. Function

A radiused corner square form factor is an obvious industrial design solution to package the basic elements these small desktop devices include: main PCB, power supply, display, a few inputs, and a connector bank. Many of these devices include only some of those parts, further emphasizing a very simple package

These simple hardware device’s, similar to smartphone design limitation, industrial design can become an interface and CMF styling exercise. However, as Apple argued during Samsung litigation, referencing Nokia smartphones, design originality is possible in these  situations.

To be Original is Possible

Human creativity is limitless, when unconstrained by falsity, as these two photos show.  Both similar form factors as Apple’s Mac mini, and all the copies shown above, yet exhibit completely new, creative industrial design solutions; copying not required

Wadia
Rovi Fan TV (discontinued)

License

At what point do you require a design license? Intellectual property design guidelines are difficult to determine, although patent and copyright rules are fairly clear, the “fact-based” interpretation is case specific and often ambiguous.

None of these 50+ companies have received attention from Apple similar to Samsung. Traditionally intellectual property litigation follows a deep pockets principle: litigate based on ability to pay, to protect market share, to protect brand image, and to extract license fees.

Apple attempted to claim the iphone design form factor, radiused corner rectangular slab, as their design intellectual property and were denied in court and ridiculed in public opinion. The Apple Mac mini design is no different, a radiused corner square slab is a commodity shape, and were it protectable it would have entered into public domain due to a long history of prior art embodiment.

No license required. However, it might be a different story should Samsung, Google, or Microsoft introduce a game console, for example, in clear anodized aluminium clad radiused corner square form factor.

Disclaimer

We are not accusing any company or designer(s) of intentional, willful copying the Apple Mac mini industrial design. We are commenting on the ubiquity of an overused form factor where others have solved the same problems with unique industrial design. Others have made similar, more academic studies of, for example office chair design, correctly identifying the situation as taxonomy of form.

Lastly, a similar article describing Apple’s copying, or inspired by, Nokia.