A day after bidding farewell to one international celebrity, BlackBerry Ltd. got entangled Friday with another, suing a Los Angeles startup co-founded and financed by Hollywood uber-host Ryan Seacrest.
The Waterloo, Ont.-based smartphone company sued Typo Products LLC, accusing it of "unlawful conduct" for allegedly ripping off its trademark mini-keyboard in a new accessory Mr. Seacrest's company has made for Apple's iPhone 5. BlackBerry filed the lawsuit in a U.S. federal court in California one day after announcing singer Alicia Keys would leave her post as the beleaguered company's "global creative director" on Jan. 30.
The "Typo Keyboard" product, which Typo is set to release at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next week, is a shell that snaps around an iPhone, with a keyboard that protrudes like a beard from the bottom of the device. It is designed to give users the experience of using a physical keyboard – which interacts wirelessly with the phone's software – rather than Apple's on-screen version.
Typo says on its website the product, which sells for $99 (U.S.), was "born out of a desire for efficiency. For several years, many of our friends and colleagues carried two phones: one for typing and correspondence and an iPhone for virtually everything else." Typo claims its product provides an "easy solution" that enables users to "type faster with fewer typos" on their iPhones.
But numerous reviewers have noted the striking similarities between the Typo Keyboard and BlackBerry's trademark keyboard, explicitly remarking that the Typo product allows users to effectively turn their iPhones into BlackBerrys. In an interview with CNN last month, Mr. Seacrest was asked if the Typo Keyboard was "the best thing about a BlackBerry, within the iPhone?" He responded: "That's kind of how this came to fruition."
BlackBerry picks up on that point in its claim, noting the alleged similarities between its products and those made by Typo: the symmetrical design of the tightly packed, rounded keys and keyboard, the "fret" bars that separate rows of keys, and the colour, finish and distinctive lettering and icons on the keys.
"Instead of developing its own keyboard design, Typo chose to copy BlackBerry's iconic keyboard design ... seeking to trade on BlackBerry's commercial recognition and goodwill," said the lawsuit, which accuses Typo of infringing the company's intellectual property rights, including three patents, and asks for damages, costs and profits from Typo sales. "Typo's keyboard product has caused and is likely to continue to cause confusion, mistake and deception as to the source of origin of Typo's products and is likely to falsely suggest a sponsorship, connection or association between Typo [and] BlackBerry."
A call and e-mail to Mr. Seacrest's publicist were not returned, nor were messages left with Typo. The allegations have not been proven in court.
Companies in the smartphone business are notoriously litigious in protecting their intellectual property and have been involved in epic legal battles, including patent holder NTP's pursuit of BlackBerry in the first half of the 2000s. "Some vendors seem to think competing in the courts helps them compete in the marketplace too," said independent technology analyst Jack Gold. "One of the differentiators for BlackBerry has always been its superior keyboard experience. I would expect BlackBerry to defend that experience aggressively."
A source familiar with BlackBerry's intellectual property history said the lawsuit "strikes me as the right thing to do because BlackBerry has keyboard intellectual property rights and [Typo] likely has no capital or intellectual property rights to defend themselves effectively. Better to stop them or extract a licence before they get traction."