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AirPods and the Iris Engine: talking to the lawyer who thinks he found Apple’s secret trademarks

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If you read enough tech news, you’re sure to see upcoming gadgets and features get leaked through regulatory filings, patent applications, and trademarks well ahead of their intended announcement. No company is immune to this, but Apple has largely avoided it — maybe until now.

Trademark attorney Brian Conroy claims to have dug up a litany of Apple trademark applications that include names no one else has seen. Among those: Iris Engine, Smart Button, Touch Bar, and Control Strip, all of which sound like plausible titles for rumored iPhone and MacBook features. Conroy also offered confirmation of Apple’s control of the AirPods trademark, and spotted a second filing for an AirPods Case.

In a blog post describing his findings, Conroy declined to say where he located the trademark applications. That’s strange, because if these are real filings, they ought to be public information — and many of them don’t pop up in online trademark databases.

Conroy says that’s because Apple wants to keep them a secret. So even though they’re public, finding them requires more work than a quick search.

“You have to be physically in the country where the application was filed”

“The way it works is, there's a huge number of countries signed up to the Madrid Protocol, and the kind of international treaties that govern trademark, but not all the signatories to the treaties have online searchable databases,” Conroy tells The Verge. The trademarks are “still matters of public record in the offices where they’re filed, but ... you have to be physically in the country where the application was filed and physically go into the local patent office and do a manual search of their systems.”

To unearth these trademark applications, Conroy says that’s exactly what he did. Or rather, paid someone to do. “So what I did was by tracking through all the past and previous trademark applications and patent filings and dummy corporations and all of that and putting together a kind of network of what [Apple has] done in the past, I figured out where they filed those applications, and I hired the local agent to physically walk into the local office and do a manual search, paid him to do it, and then he sent me the results.”

The trademark applications all came from a single country, Conroy says, and were all directly under Apple’s name — meaning there was no shell corporation to hide ownership, as there was for Apple’s AirPods trademark. “Because no one's done what I've done before, I guess Apple thought they were pretty safe,” Conroy says. “So they filed all those applications in their own name in that country. There's no dummy corporations there at all.”

Apple did not respond to a request for comment on the trademarks’ veracity.

“I suspect if and when Apple get wind of this, they'll change their process.”

Though Apple risks people finding out what it’s up to, there’s good reason for it to file for trademarks ahead of time. “It's actually very clever what they do,” Conroy says. Filing early gives Apple six months of “seniority,” which it can use to fight for rights to the trademark globally anywhere from days to months later, after it’s publicly announced new product naming. “You effectively have a six-month window where you can file your trademark application, get a priority date, which then gives you a priority globally ... and nobody can search it.”

Conroy declined to say which country he located the trademarks in, but by way of example, said that Apple has previously used Trinidad and Tobago to quietly file an application.

“There's no sinister reason I don't want to tell you,” Conroy says. “The very very simple reason is once you know what you're looking for, this stuff is easy to find. But it took me months to find out what I was looking for. And if I tell you, and you tell everyone, then come the next Apple event everyone'll be able to do it ... it's very selfish but that's kind of what it is.”

Conroy says he’s been focused on hunting down Apple’s trademark applications for the past two or three weeks, following a couple months of planning. “Honestly I'm just a bit of a law nerd,” he says. “I find this stuff fascinating myself, and once I kind of got a sniff of being on the scent of something, I couldn't help myself.”

This won’t be the first news cycle Conroy’s trademark searching has set off. He was also first to spot Warner Bros.’ trademark of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, setting off speculation about the studio’s interest in a film.

He’s hoping to do more of that today, promising additional details on Beats products and macOS. Conroy might give it a go again next year, too. Although it might be more difficult by then. "I suspect if and when Apple get wind of this, they'll change their process anyway," he says. "Whether I'll be able to figure out the next one or not, I don't know."