Teen Who Sold White iPhone Kits Reveals How Apple Hunted Him Down

kid being chased by dog

One of the last followers of tech news to hear the reports Thursday that Apple had sued Fei Lam, the 17-year-old Queens high school student who infamously sold White iPhone conversion kits to eager buyers tired of waiting on Apple's release, was Fei Lam. How did Lam hear about it? "I came back from school today and saw your email," he tells Fast Company via chat message, adding, "Lol."

For someone who allegedly made contacts in China to import iPhone parts before Apple, started his own business (WhiteiPhone4Now.com), and pulled in tens of thousands of dollars in revenue—sometimes as much as $8,000 a day—it's easy to forget that Lam is just a teenage boy still living with his parents. But after Apple caught wind of his success, Lam's no longer just dealing with gym class and puberty like most kids his age—before long, he had a private investigator after him. And yesterday, it surfaced that Apple had sicced its legal pitbulls on the teen, filing a lawsuit against Lam over trademark infringement that would force him to cease from future sales and forfeit all profits from the venture. Apple also filed a request for dismissal simultaneously, suggesting the company might have found a settlement with Lam.

We caught up with Lam via IM on Thursday. He's a bit shy about the whole situation, as you'd expect, but as he tells it, the lawsuit is far from settled.

FAST COMPANY: How have you been?

Fei Lam: I'm okay.

So what's going on with this lawsuit? Apple filed one against you?

Don't know if I should talk about it but I found out about the suit from the news.

Has it since been dismissed?

I'm not sure.

Last time we talked, you said your parents didn't know about the business. How did they react when they heard of the lawsuit? Were they upset? Surprised?

They were a bit upset, sure.

Were they impressed though that you made so much money?

Again, just to clarify I did not make $130,000—not that much. But I guess so.

But even making thousands and thousands of dollars is quite impressive for a young teen like yourself.

Thanks.

Did you get to keep the money?

I don't think I should talk about that yet. Can't say for sure.

When did you first find out about the lawsuit? Did Apple call or send a letter?

I came back from school today and saw your email. Lol.

So have your parents mostly been handling the case then?

I told Apple's lawyer that I'm sick and to meet when I get better. That was last week. I'm been handling the whole thing

So you have not settled?

I think that will be decided in the meeting.

Are you meeting in New York?  

In the firm's office, yes.

Are you going to bring a lawyer?

No.

That's pretty brave of you.

I had a lawyer but I can't afford it anymore.

I also read that Apple also filed a request for dismissal for the lawsuit, which suggests you might be off the hook.  

Or to show that they are serious.

Are you worried at all?

I would be lying if I said no, but sure, a little.

People I've spoken with seem upset that Apple is picking on you. I mean, it's such a big company, why would they concentrate on such a small issue?

I don't know how the contract works between Foxconn and Apple but the "repair parts" that come out months before actual product release is very weird.

That seems to be a focus of the lawsuit.

I also don't know why the white parts were made. Maybe they were to be thrown out or something. Not sure. It's all very weird.

Because you are saying you received them from [a businessman in China named] Alan Yang, and not from Foxconn directly?

Yes.

Do you feel like Apple is bullying you here at all?

I believe I was the only one that got their attention. After I closed down my site, other sites still sold the white repair parts. I guess if I look at it from Apple's perspective, they don't want the confusion that the white iPhone was released when it's not.

You clearly got their attention. If you had a chance to talk with Steve Jobs now, what would you say?

I don't really know. I met Woz and was really shy.

You sold one of them to Woz, right?  

Ah yeah.

Was he cool when you met him?

Awesome guy.

Did he know you were selling the white iPhone repair parts?

I think he did. Yes he did. He actually went on the Engadget Show and sort of defended me.

That was nice of him.  

Yes.

How have you been doing in other parts of your life? School going well?

I'm doing alright in school.

Do the other students know what's going on with the Apple stuff?

A few saw the news, but besides that, no one really knows and it's better that way.

You've been featured on so many prominent technology websites and news sources. Everyone seems really impressed with what you've done at such a young age. You don't want to take advantage of that—put it on your resume?  

I just got lucky.

Did [your parents] punish you at all? Like, were you grounded or anything?

I'm very close with my parents, but I tend to keep what I do online to myself like most teens.

Are they paying more attention to what you do online, since you were sued by Apple?

No.

Did they yell at you at all? I guess I'm just wondering what their reaction was. When I crashed my parent's Jeep once, they were very upset. But this is a lawsuit with Apple over thousands and thousands of dollars!  

They weren't mad at me at all. Maybe a little. I've been working on another project since October of last year and I have page up for interested beta testers. It is called SimilarInterests.org.

Oh, cool. This is the startup you mentioned you were working on?

Yes.

Are you looking for investors?  

Not yet.

When we last spoke, you also mentioned that you thought it'd be pretty cool to work at Apple one day. Do you still feel the same way?

Hmm, what would I do there? It'd be interesting.

Seems you're now more interested in starting your own company—that is, being the next Steve Jobs, rather than working for him, right?

Yeah.

So you're meeting with the Apple lawyers next week?

Within the next month.

Well, I wish you luck.

Thanks man.

[Some portions of this interview were condensed]

[Image: Flickr user Ignacio Linares Barreto]

Related: Teen Can't Wait for Apple: Orders iPhone 4 Parts Direct From Foxconn, Makes $130,000

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17 Comments

  • JCDArizona

    I still don't see how Apple has a leg to stand on here - the kid purchased genuine parts that were readily available and turned around and sold them at retail. Any of us could do the same thing with any number of products without infringing on any trademarks. If Apple wants to go after anyone, they should have been focusing on their suppliers and closed the leak - dry up the supply chain and their problem is solved.

  • travis

    Modifications dealing with cases, case design or color is relative to the owner or consumer of the product.  Like aftermarket wheels made to fit a 2011 Ford Focus.  However Apple should have been notified of the business enterprise.  Then there is the issue of the Apple trademarked logo which should have been changed to a Peach.

  • nathan goldberg

    Being the most something or other company in the world, doesn't stop you from being hugely unlikeable

  • Michael Zawicki

    When you consider this case and seemingly how Apple is handling it and when you consider their public support of Foxconn and their issues with their workers its strange.

  • JulianDr

    All these reports make it seem like big bad Apple out to crush the little kid. It's so biased and stup*d. Apple has dismissed the lawsuit, ONCE it found out exactly where the leak of materials THEY PAID  where being smuggled/stolen to be sold by this "innovative" kid.  All these reporters are full of it, stop the hyperboles and report the facts.  In other words, the lawsuit allowed them to get the information needed, they don't give a crap about some kid.

  • TomMariner

    If Apple doesn't hire this fellow and put him through school, they're nuts. Forget the great publicity, self starters and innovators are few and far between.

    Sure, let the lawyers throw fear into this fellow and others who might think of  similar pursuits, but then get out of the way -- their job is to enforce and to get the absolute best deal -- in some cases, the bottom line is served by not doing that.

  • Margit McCready

    Innovation...you gotta' love it....Apple, on the other hand....not so much...

  • Alicia Gonzales

    I like the IM format of this article. Much easier to read than paraphrasing. 

  • Richard Geller

    Clearly, Fei Lam has never posed any kind of real threat to Apple, other than, perhaps, causing them a little embarrassment. Apple, on the other hand, could manufacture a huge PR mess for themselves here, if they come off looking like bullies stomping a young bright kid in the playground. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they're a lot smarter than that.

  • Tyler Gray

    Piracy is not innovation. This kid didn't invent anything. He gained access to a supply of materials that he wasn't supposed to access. He discovered a loophole, and Apple should thank him for showing them that they need to close it. But he should also have to give back most, if not all, of the money. You can't appropriate someone else's product and sell it as your own. Apple may be the big bad wolf here, but would you feel the same if he did this to someone much smaller, a small inventor or startup company? You can't allow infringement like this with anyone, just like you can't say stealing movies or music via BitTorrent is legal just because you break it up and reassemble it from various parts. The knee jerk is to defend him, a teenager, against Apple's wolves. But think it through. We don't want to encourage this sort of behavior. It's not innovation. 

  • acarr

    Sure, but for a 17-year-old kid, it is pretty enterprising. It might not be an example of innovation, but we shouldn't forget that he smartly saw a demand for a product, and started his own business that beat out other competitors and caught the attention of Apple. We can't just disregard that shark-like sense of opportunity -- it's a part of the business world.

    Plus, in terms of stealing/copying a product, I think Tony Conrad offered a great explanation from an earlier FC article:
    "Did MySpace steal from Tribe? Did Facebook steal from MySpace? Did WordPress steal from Six Apart? Did Six Apart steal from Blogger? Honestly, I think we're going to get copied by everybody. Do you think LinkedIn is not going to do something like this? What is he talking about? I'm baffled--of course we use their product. Why wouldn't we? If you're starting Facebook, do you think you've never spent time on MySpace?"
    http://www.fastcompany.com/171...

    Sure, it's not apples to apples -- Lam's situation is actually a literal example of stealing. But he did take advantage of an opportunity, and actually pulled in a profit?

    How many of the innovative startups we cover can actually say they turn a profit?