With the recent launch of the new iPhone 5, all eyes are on Apple. The company is well known not only for its technological advances, but also for frequent controversies over patent rights. The widely discussed complaints included, amongst others, the use of a rounded corners design. A recent court case against Samsung Electronics won Apple $1.05 billion, following the judgement by the U. S. court.

The times, they are a-changin’”, however – Apple themselves might be faced with an infringement claim. The latest clock app used in the iOS 6 operating system for the iPad caught the attention of the Switzerland’s national rail company. Their iconic clock, created in 1944 by Hans Hilfiker, is made up of white background, black lines indicating the numbers, and a red second hand with a circle at the end. The design has been heavily licensed, most notably by the watchmakers Mondaine. This way, the brand has spread across the globe, and is seen as one of the international symbols of the country, together with Swiss banks, cheese, chocolate and gnomes.

A spokesman for the rail company, SBB, Reto Kormann, stated that Apple used the design without permission. He suggested that SBB is “proud” the design is used in the technology – however, Apple had no license to include it in the recent app. The German and Swiss public relations offices for Apple refused to comment on the issue.

The latest reports suggest that Apple and SBB are negotiating an amicable settlement and potential compensation. In order to avoid drawing attention away from the latest products, a quick and quiet end to the controversy would be most favourable for both technology giants.

For the purposes of registration in the UK, a design is defined as "the appearance of the whole or part of a product resulting from the features of, in particular, the lines, contours, colours, shape, texture or materials of the product or ornamentation." When registered, it can provide protection as well as basis of selling or licensing. Registered designs can be renewed every 5 years for up to 25 years. 

Additional trademark protection may be available for an iconic design in appropriate circumstances.