Earlier this year, Louis Rossmann, the highest-profile iPhone and Mac repair professional in the United States, told Motherboard that determining “the difference between counterfeiting and refurbishing is going to be the next big battle” between the independent repair profession and Apple. At the time, his friend and fellow independent repair pro, Jessa Jones, had just had a shipment of iPhone screens seized by Customs and Border Patrol.
Rossmann was right: His repair parts were also just seized by the US government.
Last month, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized a package containing 20 Apple laptop batteries en route to Rossman’s store in New York City. The laptop batteries were en route from China to Rossmann Repair Group—a NYC based repair store that specializes in Apple products. “Apple and customs seized batteries to a computer that, at [the Apple Store], they no longer service because they claim it’s vintage,” Rossmann, the owner and operator of Rossmann Repair Group, said in a YouTube video. “They will not allow me to replace batteries, because when I import batteries that are original they’ll tell me the they’re counterfeit and have them stolen from by [CBP].”
CBP seized the batteries on September 6, then notified Rossmann via a letter dated October 5. Rossmann produced the letter in its entirety in his video. “The property contains markings which are substantially indistinguishable and, therefore, bear a counterfeit design/word/mark as indicated below,” the letter said.
A CBP spokesperson told Motherboard in an email: “CBP officers and trade specialists detained the shipment and submitted samples to CBP’s Consumer Products and Mass Merchandising Centers for Excellence and Expertise (CEE), the agency’s trade experts, who determined the batteries to be counterfeit."
According to the phrasing of the complaint, it was the use of the Apple logo on the batteries and not the batteries themselves that CBP took issue with. “It is assumed that if something has that Apple logo on it, it must be counterfeit,” Rossmann said. “It couldn't be that someone who has these batteries sold them to me. It couldn’t be that someone took these batteries out of machines that were on demo in stores….machines that they owned, packaged them up and sent them to me,” Rossmann said. “No, they must be counterfeit. There’s no other explanation for it.”
"There has to be a line where putting your logo somewhere no longer means 'this can be confiscated at the border'—I think on the LCD flex cable is far past that line," Rossmann told Motherboard earlier this year. "Your logo is for brand recognition. Using it as a weapon is misuse of the law."
Apple has a contentious history with right to repair advocates, and this isn’t the first time the Department of Homeland Security has seized the property of third party repair stores. In May, CBP seized iPhone LCD screens worth a total of $1,727 from prominent right to repair advocate Jessa Jones. In 2013, ICE agents raided independent repair stores in South Florida and seized between around $300,000 in parts apple claimed were counterfeit. In Norway, customs officials seized repair parts headed for an independent repair shop there. Apple ultimately lost a lawsuit against a Norwegian repair shop after it claimed the owner violated Apple’s trademark by using unauthorized parts; the court ruled that he was free to import and use them.
Rossmann is now at the center of the fight that he predicted earlier this year. Rossmann is by far the most famous independent iPhone and Mac repair person in the United States (and probably on Earth)—he is regularly quoted by the press and has 622,000 YouTube subscribers. On that channel, he shows people how to do complex repairs and often rails against Apple’s repair policies.
His 20 laptop batteries are worth $1,068 and, according to the letter from CBP, he has little recourse to release them from custody. He can file a petition, offer a compromise, abandon all claims to the property, or fight the seizure in court. “I don’t care if I have to spend $50,000 in legal fees to get back my $1,000 worth of stuff,” Rossmann said. “This is principle. Apple, you are not going to get away with this. We are going ensure that people know exactly how you treat your customers and exactly what you put people through that simply want to replace a battery on a laptop that you won’t even touch.”
Rossmann explained that there’s no authorized method for him to purchase the laptop batteries his customers need to keep their devices working. If they were to take the faulty devices to a Genius Bar, the Genius Bar would turn them away.
“If I become an Apple authorized service provider and I wish to obtain parts to a machine they consider vintage, Apple will say no,” he said. “If I talk to somebody in China...they get taken by a company that’s using the power of the government to seize my stuff. Apple is working with the government to shut down those who mislead customers, aka trying to fix machines that they won’t fix because they consider them vintage after four or five years. Just around the time that your battery starts to die.”
He’s right: Apple does not sell replacement parts to customers or to independent repair shops, and its “Authorized Service Provider Program” has strict limitations about the types of repairs that shops can perform. Meanwhile, Apple has strongly fought “right to repair” legislation that would make it easier for people to buy replacement parts.
Louis Rossmann and Apple did not immediately respond to our request for comment for this article.
In May, when we reported about CBP’s seizure of Jones’s parts, Apple declined to comment on the record. CBP told us that it seized Jones’s parts and was not instructed by Apple to do so (we do not know the specifics of what happened in Rossmann’s case.)
Legal experts told us that importing genuine parts for the purpose of repair is not illegal. From our earlier article:
The US Department of Justice, for its part, has said that gray market goods are legal to import as long as they are not substantially different from the original product; this is called “parallel importation.”
“Congress did not intend the criminal provisions to apply to [company logos] on so called ‘parallel imports’ or ‘gray market’ goods, in which both the goods and the marks are genuine, but which are sold outside of the trademarks owners authorized distribution channels,” the DOJ’s criminal resources manual states. Similarly, the “ first sale doctrine” protects the ability of people to resell goods that have trademarked logos on them; even if the parts are refurbished or repaired, the trademark holder has still gotten money from the “first sale” of that good.
Aaron Perzanowski, a trademark, copyright, and intellectual property law professor at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law, told me that Jones’s parts likely can’t be considered “counterfeit.”
“Assuming that: (1) the cable bearing the Apple mark is a genuine Apple product, (2) the cable used on these screens is the same as the one Apple uses in the U.S., and (3) the importer/seller clearly communicates that the screens are a non-Apple aftermarket product, then Apple’s case for treating these as ‘counterfeit’ goods is very weak,” Perzanowski said in an email. “Refurbished or repaired products are generally permissible under trademark law’s first sale doctrine, so long as they are clearly labeled as such.”
“This strikes me as an abuse of trademark law by Apple,” he added, “one clearly designed to maintain its stranglehold over the repair market and, ultimately, to force customers to buy new hardware.”
This story was updated on Oct. 19 at 3:00 p.m. EST with comment from CBP.