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Sometimes, Intellectual Property Laws Are Just Plain Nuts

by @ 1:57 pm on October 29, 2007. Filed under iPod, Property Rights, Technology

Take, for example, the story of the 9 year old girl who sent a letter to Apple only to get a cease-and-desist letter in return:

CBS 13) Like any nine-year-old, Shea O’Gorman spends a lot of time listening to her iPod Nano. So much so, that when her third grade class started learning about writing letters she thought, who better to write to than the man whose company makes her iPod.

“I decided to write to Mr. Steven Jobs,” said Shea. Jobs is the president of Apple Computers.

“She just came home and said ‘mom I have some ideas about the iPod Nano,’ and said ‘I’m going to write Steven Jobs a letter’,” said Shea’s mother. “We were just very impressed and very proud of her.”

In her letter, Shea outlined her ideas for improving iPods like adding song lyrics.

“Have the words on the screen so they could sing along and stuff,” said Shea.

She got a response, all right, from Apple’s lawyers:

The letter was not from Steve Jobs, it was signed the senior counsel, Apple Law Department.

That’s right, apple’s legal department, telling a nine year old that apple does not accept unsolicited ideas. Apple’s legal department told her not send them her suggestions, and if she wants to know why, she could read their legal policy on the Internet.

“We were stunned, we just were stunned, is the best word to say. It just wasn’t the appropriate type letter to send to a third grader who had the initiative to write to them,” said Shea’s mom.

And just what does that unsolicited ideas policy say ? Well, here it is:

Apple or any of its employees do not accept or consider unsolicited ideas, including ideas for new advertising campaigns, new promotions, new or improved products or technologies, product enhancements, processes, materials, marketing plans or new product names. Please do not send any original creative artwork, suggestions or other works. The sole purpose of this policy is to avoid potential misunderstandings or disputes when Apple’s products or marketing strategies might seem similar to ideas submitted to Apple. So, please do not send your unsolicited ideas to Apple or anyone at Apple. If, despite our request that you not send us your ideas, you still send them, then regardless of what your letter says, the following terms shall apply to your idea submission.

You agree that: (1) your ideas will automatically become the property of Apple, without compensation to you, and (2) Apple can use the ideas for any purpose and in any way, even give them to others.

Sounds harsh, I’m sure, and especially so when applied to a 9 year old girl who just thought it would be cool if she could read lyrics on her iPod Nano.  But you can thank the state of intellectual property law for that.

If it weren’t for the policy noted above, and the cease-and-desist letters like the one this girl got that I’m sure are sent out on a legal basis, Apple could be subjecting itself to countless lawsuits — some of them with merit, most of them without — from people — some of them sane, most of them not — claiming that they came up with a given idea before Apple did. The costs of the litigation alone can be enormous, not to mention the potential costs of a court ruling ten years after the fact.

So, before you go condemning Apple for upsetting a 9 year-old girl, maybe you need to ask yourself why the company feels the need to protect itself like this.

4 Responses to “Sometimes, Intellectual Property Laws Are Just Plain Nuts”

  1. CR UVa says:

    I wonder if Apple recognized that they were getting a letter from a 9-year old girl. This story is making a big deal about how Apple appeared mean to a kid, but they may not have had any clue that they were dealing with a child. Hearing what I have about most people who have written to Steve Jobs (usually due to any service or product they required not working as expected), I would have figured a more appropriate response if they were aware.

  2. CR,

    If Apple’s Legal Dept. works the way most other corporate legal departments do — and let’s face it, it may be Apple, but we’re talking about lawyers here — then I would bet that they either didn’t recognize it or that sending out this letter is, for the reasons I stated, such an ingrained part of their SOP that it didn’t matter to them.

    From a PR point of view, this could’ve been handled better. But I understand Apple’s position.

  3. Acad Ronin says:

    Apple did the right thing, for the reasons you mentioned. They didn’t know she was nine, and even if they did, her parents could subsequently sue on the child’s behalf, affirming that Apple had stolen the child’s idea.

  4. Jack says:

    What if they did not send the letter and in six months released a lyrics equiped version of the Ipod, either because of or independent of the suggestions in the letter?

    Would the girl have sued? Won? Gotten rich? Maybe writing companies with suggestions and waiting to sue is a rational strategy for earning money.

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