Apple’s product launches are notoriously secretive, but the Cupertino, California tech giant is sure to do one thing ahead of a big reveal: file trademark paperwork in Jamaica.
It did this for Siri, the Apple Watch, macOS, and dozens of its major products months before the equivalent paperwork was lodged in the United States. Likewise, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft routinely file trademarks for their most important products in locales far flung from Silicon Valley and Seattle. These include Jamaica, Tonga, Iceland, South Africa, and Trinidad and Tobago—places where trademark authorities don’t maintain easily searchable databases.
The tech giants are exploiting a US trademark-law provision that lets them effectively claim a trademark in secret. Under this provision, once a mark is lodged with an intellectual property office outside the US, the firm has six months to file it with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). When the firm does file in the US, it can point to its original application made abroad to show that it has a priority claim on the mark.
In the meantime, though, the provision prevents competitors from guessing at a firm’s product plans from public filings. “Competitors could search, ‘What has Apple filed for? What are they thinking about?'” says Nehal Madhani of legal-software provider Alt Legal, who has researched the issue. Think of it as arbitraging global intellectual-property laws.
The filings made overseas aren’t, of course, actually secret—they’re just not easy to access if you can’t go in person. For instance, the Jamaica Intellectual Property Office allows visitors to search filings in person at its office in Kingston. People can also ask the office to search filings for them, but a Jamaican address is required to receive the results, and the process takes three weeks. A lawyer in Jamaica, however, can be appointed to perform the search, the office told Quartz. It said it has no current plans to put its filings database online. Alt Legal compiled a list of 65 other countries with offline trademark databases like Jamaica’s.
Each tech company seems to prefer a particular country for its trademark applications. We compiled registration data going back to 2010 on Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft, and charted the countries where they first filed trademarks: