Small Jazz Musician Foils Apple Music Trademark Registration

by Dennis Crouch

Bertini v. Apple Inc., — F.4th — (Fed. Cir. 2023)

Apple Records was founded by The Beatles in 1968 and quickly became a success, producing many hit records in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Apple Computer Company was founded in the mid-1970s and almost immediately sued for trademark infringement by Apple Corps (the parent company of Apple Records).  The companies eventually settled the case with Apple Computer paying $80k and agreeing to stay out of the music business.  The companies clashed again in the 2000s as Apple Computer (now Apple Inc.) expanded into music via iTunes and other services.  The two eventually reached another settlement that transfers substantial rights over to Apple Inc. to use the mark in connection with its music-related products and services.

In 2015 Apple began using the mark APPLE MUSIC as its new music streaming service. It also filed to register a trademark on the mark.

Meanwhile, Charlie Bertini created his band AppleJazz Band back in 1984 to perform at the AppleJazz festival.  He also created the AppleJazz record label.  Bertini filed an opposition to Apple’s TM registration which the TTAB eventually dismissed.  On appeal here, however, the Federal Circuit has reversed — holding that Apple had not proven a sufficient right of priority.

Tacking: The basic issue in the case is whether Apple Inc. can claim priority use back to the founding of Apple Records in 1968 (or sometime before 1984). Of importance, the pre-84 use of Apple mark was solely for “gramophone records” and other record formats.  In its registration application, Apple is seeking to register APPLE MUSIC for “15 broad categories of services, from the production and distribution of sound recordings, to presenting live musical performances, to providing websites featuring entertainment and sports information.”  Slip Op.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit held that the tacking analysis must be pursued for each service listed its application.

The Board legally erred by permitting Apple to claim absolute priority for all of the services listed in its application based on a showing of priority for one service listed in the application. Tacking a mark for one good or service does not grant priority for every other good or service in the trademark application. A trademark owner must show tacking is available for each good or service for which it claims priority on that ground. . . . The trademark applicant cannot establish absolute priority for the full application simply by proving priority of use for a single service listed in the application.

Slip Op.  Here, Apple has not shown that taking is proper for live musical performances and therefore the application must be rejected.  On remand, Apple will likely be able to narrow its application to only services that are properly covered by its assignment from Apple Records.

In her analysis, Federal Circuit Chief Judge Moore repeatedly stated that tacking is an exception to the ordinary rule and should be narrowly construed.  American courts “uniformly apply the tacking doctrine narrowly.”  Although tacking allows for minor changes in services and in the mark itself, tacking requires “substantial identity.” “[G]oods or services must be substantially identical for tacking to apply.” Id.  In the context here, in order to have tacking for musical performances “Apple must therefore show live musical performances are substantially identical to gramophone records.” Although substantial identity is a question of fact, the Federal Circuit concluded that there was no need for the TTAB to determine this question — “no reasonable person could conclude … that gramophone records and live musical performances are substantially identical.”

Accordingly, Apple is not entitled to tack its use of APPLE MUSIC for live musical performances onto Apple Corps’ 1968 use of APPLE for gramophone records. Because Apple began using the mark APPLE MUSIC in 2015, Bertini has priority of use for APPLE JAZZ as to live musical performances. We therefore reverse the Board’s dismissal of Bertini’s opposition to Apple’s application to register APPLE MUSIC.


Note that Apple has substantially moved-on from this issue and redid its logo as shown below using a design-plus-word mark.

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