Today in Apple history: Apple goes to war with The Beatles again

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Beatles
The Beatles' clash with Apple ran for almost 30 years.
Photo: Apple Corps

Mar30 March 30, 2006: A court case begins that once again pits Apple Computer against Apple Corps, aka The Beatles’ record label and holding company.

Capping a long-running legal battle between the two wealthy companies, the U.K.’s High Court of Justice will ultimately hand down a verdict in the tech giant’s favor. It’s the final fight in an epic legal battle over music, technology and money.

Epic legal battle between Apple and Apple Corps

As was the case with the Macintosh and iPhone, the name chosen for Apple the company has been heavily contested over the years. Although Apple didn’t incorporate until 1977, The Beatles’ record label operated under the name Apple Corps since 1968.

As a Beatles fan, Steve Jobs would have known this — as did Steve Wozniak, who raised the issue as they batted around names for their new computer company. However, no link ever got acknowledged between the two company names.

Plenty of theories explain why Jobs and Woz chose “Apple,” though: Jobs previously worked in an apple orchard; the name “Apple” would come at the front of alphabetized computer company directories; the apple is the biblical source of all knowledge.

Nonetheless, it didn’t take long after the launch of the Apple II for Apple Corps to file a lawsuit protecting its name. This got settled in 1981, with Apple Computer paying Apple Corps $80,000 and agreeing not to enter the music business.

More fighting as Apple embraces music

Problems flared up again in 1986 when Apple added MIDI and audio-recording to the Mac and Apple II product lines. In February 1989, Apple Corps sued again, claiming that its 1981 agreement had been violated. In particular, the company singled out the Mac Plus, Mac SE and Mac II, as well as the Apple IIGS, AppleCD SC drive and Apple’s MIDI device.

Amusingly, The Beatles’ lawyers suggested that Apple should change its name to Banana or Peach to get around future issues.

Once again, Apple found itself forced to pay Apple Corps — this time a far more significant $26.5 million. (Apple tried to pass this bill on to its insurance company, along with $8.5 million in legal fees. This resulted in a separate lawsuit, which did not get resolved until April 1999 by a California appeals court. Apple lost again.)

On this occasion, Apple signed what it thought was going to be a deal offering long-running protection against the music company’s demands. Apple Computer could manufacture and sell devices that “reproduce, run, play or otherwise deliver such content” so long as this wasn’t on physical media.

iTunes restarts the battle

That may well have been the end of it, had Jobs not decided to launch the iTunes Music Store following the phenomenal success of the iPod. By the mid-2000s, the iTunes Music Store was well on its way to becoming the biggest music retailer in the United States, before becoming the biggest in the world.

This prompted Apple Corps to sue one more time. On this occasion, the outcome of the previous 1989 lawsuit made many observers think Apple might win this time around, since iTunes didn’t sell any physical media.

However, others suggested that if the decision went in Apple Corps’ direction, the damages Apple would be charged would exceed either of the previous two settlements.

Let it be: Apple and The Beatles find peace

Ultimately Apple won, and the two parties reached a deal in February 2007.

“We love The Beatles, and it has been painful being at odds with them over these trademarks,” Jobs said in the aftermath. “It feels great to resolve this in a positive manner, and in a way that should remove the potential of further disagreements in the future.”

Today, The Beatles’ music is available on both iTunes and Apple Music.

Do you remember the era when Apple Computer battled Apple Corps in the courts? Leave your comments below.