The Battle of the Bins


For those who used older Apple Macintosh computers back in the early 1980s or the mostly-forgotten Apple Lisa, that icon above may be familiar. It’s a trash can, and at the time, it was an incredibly innovate one. While computers (and now phones and tablets) with graphical user interfaces (GUIs) are now common and expected, that wasn’t the case thirty or so years ago. The Lisa, which came out in 1983, was one of the first computers with a GUI; the Mac, which came a year later, is often considered the machine which popularized GUIs in personal computing. The ability to simply drag something on your computer into the virtual trash can was, at the time, a big deal.

But if you’re a Windows user, you’ve probably noticed that your computer doesn’t have a trash can. Instead, it has a “Recycle Bin,” perhaps like the one below (if your computer is old enough).


Is Microsoft more eco-friendly than Apple? Hardly — they just don’t want any legal trouble.

Let’s go back to the mid-1980s. Apple’s GUI was very popular — and it was something which was nearly immediately copied. In November of 1985, Microsoft released its own graphical operating system — Windows 1.0 — and Apple wasn’t very happy. Nevertheless, the two sides avoided a pricey court battle: Apple licensed certain elements to Microsoft, allowing Windows 1.0 to continue unabated. (Here is a good narrative of how that all went down.)

Unfortunately, Windows 1.0 was a flop — the potential was there, but the execution was lacking. The system requirements were extensive; the software didn’t perform very quickly; and the interface, while graphical, was clunky and not all that intuitive. So, Microsoft took another crack at it with Windows 2.0, which was a much more successful product — in part, perhaps, because it looked and worked a lot more like a Mac than Windows 1.0 did. And this time, Apple wasn’t willing to come to an agreement. Instead, Apple sued.

The crux of Apple’s argument was that “look and feel” of its Mac and Lisa operating systems were subject to copyright, and Microsoft — beyond what was licensed for use in Windows 1.0 — had taken that look and feel in violation of Apple’s rights. The case took almost a decade but, ultimately, the courts disagreed. In 1994, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decided the case (mostly) in favor of Microsoft (and its co-defendant, Hewlett-Packard), mostly upholding the decision of the lower court.

Putting those “mostly”s aside — they’re unimportant for our purposes — this was a big loss for Apple. Almost nothing in their design, the court said, was protected by copyright — and therefore, Microsoft and others were free to copy it. But the trash bin was an exception. Here’s what the lower court wrote in 1993:

Like the garbage icons in the Macintosh and Lisa, the “Waste Basket” icon in [Hewlett-Packard’s] NewWave Developer’s Release is depicted as an outdoor alley-style cylindrical garbage can with a lid and a handle on the top. Although the garbage can in NewWave Developer’s Release does not have vertical lines to indicate a fluted surface or a handle, a trier of fact could reasonably find substantial similarity between it and the garbage icons in Apple’s works. Accordingly, HP’s motion for lack of substantial similarity is DENIED as to item H2 in NewWave Developer’s Release.

To distill the legalese there: Hewlett-Packard, who Apple also accused of copying its look and feel, had a “Waste Basket” in its operating system. The Court said that the actual icons Apple used were copyrighted, and in this case, HP’s Waste Basket could be seen as violating that copyright.

As a result, Microsoft decided not to tempt fate. And for that matter, neither did anyone else. As Atlas Obscura notes, “the ’90s version of Norton Desktop used a ‘shredder’ and a ‘Smart Eraser.’ X Window System, an open source software most popular with Unix-users, has a ‘Dumpster.'” And of course, Windows has a recycle bin — all to avoid letters from Apple’s lawyers.

Bonus fact: The original Macintosh — now often referred to as the “Macintosh 128K” (a reference to the amount of RAM it came with) — had a keyboard without arrow keys. As Wikpedia notes, “this was an intentional decision by Apple.” The company didn’t want software developers to simply bring old software over to the Mac; instead, Apple wanted developers to create new software which took advantage of the mouse and the graphical user interface. The decision frustrated a lot of users and developers alike, but if you’re familiar with Apple’s decades of decisions since, is par for the course for the company.

From the Archives: The Hidden Reference to the Beatles in Old Macs: Another quirk of computer litigation.

Related: Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, which actually has little to do with the Trash/Recycle Bin brouhaha, as Jobs wasn’t at Apple during the time of the litigation.