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Patent Protection For Graphical User Interfaces

October 17, 2017 – Graphical user interfaces (GUIs) used in electronic devices and computers increasingly are a part of everyday life. Whether through a website or application, GUIs might be the only manner in which one interacts with a service. Consumers identify the services and applications provided by a company based on a GUI that receives input to perform a function. Companies, in turn, are spending more resources to develop improved GUIs that provide better experiences in the marketplace. Products not normally associated with GUIs also use such interfaces, such as those incorporating platforms for the Internet of Things technologies. A refrigerator may collect data on usage and other parameters to display to a user via a GUI in an application or on the refrigerator itself.

The emphasis on GUIs also brings consideration for intellectual property protection for innovations and branding. GUIs differ from other technologies because of the number of ways to protect them. Recently, patent protection for GUIs has become a topic of interest. A GUI may be protected as a utility patent or a design patent. Patentees may determine which type of patent to pursue based on the underlying technology of the GUI, the purpose of the GUI, and the objectives of the patent portfolio. This article briefly discusses consideration for each form of protection.

A utility patent protects a GUI's functional features. A GUI typically receives input from a user and performs some action as a result. The process to perform the action may be patentable under current U.S. patent practice as long as the claims meet the requirements set forth in the Alice Corp. decision regarding 35 U.S.C. 101. If the claims directed to a GUI do not meet the requirements, then the invention will be considered an abstract idea. In summary, the analysis determines whether the claims are directed to an abstract idea. If so, then the analysis determines whether the claims recite limitations that are "significantly more" than the abstract idea. A patent application including a GUI claim also is subject to the other requirements for patentability, such as novelty, non-obviousness, and enablement.

The avoidance of the abstract idea exception under Section 101 jurisprudence represents a significant hurdle. One reason may be that many GUIs are an abstraction of underlying software functionality. A GUI is merely a digital representation of the abstract idea. Examples of abstract ideas under current U.S. practice include a GUI to plan meals and processes of gathering and analyzing information then displaying the results. None of these inventions include any particular assertedly inventive technologies to perform the underlying functions.

A GUI claim, however, directed to a specific improvement to the way computers operate is patent eligible. In Trading Technologies International, Inc. v. CQG, Inc., the Federal Circuit agreed that claims directed to methods and systems for displaying market information on a graphical user interface relating to and facilitating trading of a commodity being traded on an electronic exchange is not an abstract idea. WL 192716 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 18, 2017) (non-precedential). The patents describe problems that arise when a trader attempts to enter an order for an electronic trade at a particular price, but misses the price because the market moved before the order was entered and executed. The invention reduces the time for a trader to place a trade when electronically trading on an exchange, thereby increasing the likelihood that the order will be filled at desirable prices and quantities. The GUI provides a dynamic display for a plurality of bids and for a plurality of asks in the market for a commodity and a static display of prices corresponding to the plurality of bids and asks. The system pairs orders with the static display of prices and prevents order entry at a changed price.

The Federal Circuit upheld the District Court's determination that the claims reciting the GUI are not directed to abstract ideas. Instead, the claims are directed to solving problems of prior GUI devices in the context of computerized trading relating to speed, accuracy, and usability. The claims do not recite conventional computer implementations of known procedures. Further, there is not a corollary to pre-electronic trading such that the problem is rooted in new technologies. The claims recite more than setting, displaying, and selecting data to be visible on the GUI. A claim directed to a GUI does not recite an abstract idea if it requires a specific, structured GUI paired with a prescribed functionality directly related to the GUI's structure that is addressed to and resolves a specifically identified problem in the prior state of the art.

Example 23 of the Appendix to the July 2015 Update: Subject Matter Eligibility (80 FR 45429) also addresses hypothetical claims directed to methods for resizing or relocating textual information within a window displayed in a graphical user interface. Numerous windows may be present on a screen such that some of the windows overlap each other. The underlying windows are partially obscured. The invention reformats and moves the textual information to unobscured positions in the underlying window be viewable to the user. When the overlap condition no longer exists, the textual information is returned to its original format and location. The textual information is scaled based upon a scaling factor that is calculated using a mathematical algorithm.

The Example concludes that claims 1 and 4 are acceptable, while claims 2 and 3 are not. Claims 2 and 3 recite steps to generate data and calculate the scaling factor. The scaling factor is not applied to any further steps. Claim 1, however, recites steps of constantly monitoring to detect an overlap condition, automatically relocating the textual information during the overlap condition, and automatically returning the textual information when the condition no longer exists. Claim 4 recites steps similar to claim 1 as well as calculating the scaling factor and applying it to scale the textual information.

Claim 1 is not an abstract idea because it does not recite a concept previously found to abstract by the courts. It does not recite a mathematical concept or a mental process that can be done in the human mind or using pen and paper. Probably most importantly, the claimed method is rooted in computer technology to overcome a problem specifically arising in a GUI. The solution to the overlapping problem may be unique to GUIs or computing environments. The analysis of claim 4 differs from claim 1 in that it is directed to an abstract idea as it recites the calculating of a scaling factor. Claim 4 recites additional limitations that amount to significantly more than the abstract idea. These additional limitations include a computer screen and processor, but these are not enough. Instead, the claim recites an ordered combination of steps that are significantly more. The claims also recite a specific application of the mathematical algorithm that improves the display function of the computer itself.

As these examples show, utility patent protection may be available for claims reciting a GUI if it does more than display collected information or put routine operations on a device. One should make sure there is a process apart from the GUI that improves the underlying technology and that the problem being solved is directed to new technologies. One also should file other claims along with one directed to a GUI in the utility application. Although structure is not specifically required under the examples discussed above, we strongly recommend a device or article of manufacture description in the patent application so that it may be argued that a computer/processor is required to execute the process apart from the GUI. As with other abstract idea considerations, any mathematical algorithm should be limited to a specific application to improve an area of technology removed from generic computer functions or improves the operation of the computer itself. Any steps should not involve using the human mind to compare information and make an input to the GUI.

Design patent protection has existed for GUIs since 1992. In Ex Parte Strijland, the PTAB held that GUIs are eligible statutory subject matter, provided that the GUI is shown with some portion of a display or other article of manufacture. 26 USPQ2d 1259 (BPAI 1992). Thus, many design patent applications typically recite a display screen. An example claim may be "Display Screen with Graphical User Interface" or "Display Screen with Icon."

The article of manufacture requirement has been relaxed in that the entire device does not need to be disclosed, and only a portion of the display screen shown to illustrate the environment of the GUI. Further, broken lines may be used to disclaim the portion of the claim used to demonstrate the display or article of manufacture. Applicants should note that a design patent application for a GUI also must meet the other requirements for patentability but do not have to undergo the patent-eligibility analysis under the Alice Corp. decision.

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