Australia: Australian Patent Office v Apple Inc: Time For Another Bite At Patenting Fancy User Interfaces

Last Updated: 3 September 2018
Article by Nik Ramchand

Overview: Time Display

On 20 August 2018, the Australian Patent Office gave Apple Inc. another chance to patent a fancy way of displaying time on iPad, iPhone and Apple Watch devices. The Patent Office had initially rejected Apple's patent application on the basis that it was directed to an aesthetic, rather than technical, development, which is not the kind of thing that patents protect. The Patent Office has now reconsidered its approach, and has given Apple a further opportunity to demonstrate that it has indeed made a technical advance, before it reaches a final conclusion on Apple's patent application.

The Patent Application: Context-Specific User Interfaces

In June 2015, Apple filed Australian standard patent application no. 2015298710, entitled "Context-specific user interfaces". It identifies Apple's Chief Design Officer, Jony Ive, as one of the inventors.

The patent application describes the use of animations when displaying the time on a touch sensitive display: the illustrations in the patent application show a small square display, much like the Apple Watch display. In one example described in the patent application, twisting the crown of the watch rotates a globe of the Earth while making a corresponding update to the time. In another example, a butterfly is shown flying in one direction when the watch is activated in the morning, and in another direction when the watch is activated in the evening.

With this patent application, Apple was attempting to protect a method of showing two different animations at two different times of the day (say, morning and evening). Each animation has three phases: a start, a middle and an end. The morning and evening animations have the same start phase and end phase, and differ only in their middle phases. Oh, and the animations take place while the present time is being displayed.

Initial Rejection by the Patent Examiner: Not Technical

In Australia, patents aren't granted for developments just because they are new and inventive: the new developments must also be patentable subject matter. Patents won't be granted for business methods, for example. They also won't be granted for works of art, or for inventions that just improve the look or aesthetics of a device or thing. We've looked at this patentable subject matter requirement in the context of other decisions, such as those in the http://www.davies.com.au/ip-news/australian-full-court-uses-lack-of-technical-contribution-to-reject-rpl-cen RPL Central, Research Affiliates, Encompass and Bio-Rad cases, amongst others.

In this case, an Examiner at the Patent Office rejected Apple's application because they did not consider it sufficiently technical. In rejecting Apple's application, they stated (amongst other things):

From reading your application as a whole the substance of the alleged invention is a presentation of specific aesthetic content.

Key factors to considering patentable subject matter identified by the Full Court in [the RPL Central decision] include whether the contribution of the invention "solves a technical problem within the computer or outside the computer or whether it results in an improvement in the functioning of the computer, irrespective of the data being processed".

The present invention solves the problem of providing users with something engaging to look at. This is not a problem of a technical nature.

In other words, Apple's invention was about aesthetics, and not about a technical advance deserving of patent protection.

Examiner's Rejection Overturned

Unhappy with this rejection, Apple requested a hearing, and the matter came before a Delegate of the Commissioner of Patents.

The Delegate found that the Examiner had been overly narrow in his consideration of patentable subject matter issues. In his written decision, the Delegate made statements such as:

It is inappropriate to conclude that an invention contains solely excluded subject matter simply on the basis that it is a computer running an algorithm.; and

t is also inappropriate to exclude an invention merely because an idea or concept is known.

The Delegate also endorsed an aspect the RPL Central case in the following way:

[The RPL Central case] sets out that the invention must contain more than an abstract idea, and must involve the creation of an artificial state of affairs where the computer is integral to the invention. Simply said, the computer must be more than a mere tool in which the invention is performed.

User Interfaces and Aesthetics

Under current Australian law, an analysis of whether an invention involves patentable subject matter starts out with a determination of the "substance of the invention". The Delegate found that Apple's invention was not directed to aesthetics, or the mere display of intellectual information – the claims of the application were not directed to what was displayed, but how it was displayed. He found that the substance of the invention was directed towards an interface which was designed to generate and display user interface objects in a specific manner.

Apple says that it has "Improved the Computer"

Apple argued that its technique of re-using start and end phases for the morning and evening animations, and only replacing the middle phase, resulted in a number of technical improvements, including:

  1. Provision of a faster, more efficient method for managing context-specific user interfaces.
  2. A reduced cognitive burden on a user.
  3. A more efficient human-machine interface.
  4. A reduction in the number of unnecessary, extraneous, repetitive, and/or redundant inputs.
  5. A faster and more efficient user interface arrangement, which may reduce the number of required inputs, reduce processing power, and reduce the amount of time for which user interfaces need to be displayed in order for desired functions to be accessed and carried out.
  6. A conservation of power and increase in the time between battery charges for battery powered devices.

However, the Delegate found that a reduction of cognitive burden, an improvement in interface efficiency, and a reduction of numbers of inputs (items 2-4 above) related to what was displayed, not how the displayed information was produced, and so were not the products of the claimed invention. With respect to efficiency and conservation of power, the Delegate found that the processor within the device would still need to render all three phases in both the morning and evening animations, so in practice there would not be any substantial reduction in power consumption or processing.

The Importance of the State of the Art

In determining whether the substance of the invention was patentable, the Delegate considered that he needed to understand the state of the art when Apple filed its application. His reasoning was as follows:

If one would commonly rearrange and reuse animation sequences to produce user interface objects, then clearly [Apple's] contribution lies in the scheme for ordering the animation sequences, which would not lie within the established principles of what constitutes a patentable invention.

If the invention relates to the storage of six animation sequences but the use of only four sequences, then there is no technical improvement in the computer, such as the use of less memory. Thus, even if the rearranging and reusing of animation sequences is known in the art, this would not be a patentable invention as it does not lead to an improvement in the computer. The result is aesthetic.

However if the opposite was found, then clearly [Apple's] contribution lies in the concept of re-arranging animation sequences, which leads to improvement in the operation of the computer system itself. That is, in performing the steps of the claimed invention, the computational burden in producing a user interface object is optimised. It follows that [Apple's] contribution would be technical in nature, and would lie within established principles of what would constitute a patentable invention.

Because the Delegate did not have enough information about the state of the art, he remitted the matter back to examination, and gave Apple three months to prove the state of the art and have the application accepted.

An Opportunity for a Lesson

Having determined that Apple should be given a second chance, the Delegate need not have gone further. However, he considered it necessary to make some more general comments about the approach taken to patentable subject matter.

Echoing the sentiments expressed by the UK hearing officer in the Landmark Graphics Corporation case, the Delegate noted:

The present case provides an example of why it is crucial, when assessing the substance of the invention, that one should not apply too narrow a view. ... [O]ne should not immediately conclude that an application is not for a manner of manufacture just because it may fall, generally within what typically constitutes excluded subject matter. Rather, an assessment of where the substance of the invention may lie should be approached with a holistic point of view.

Implications for Other Patent Applications

This decision is a demonstration of the difficulties associated with undertaking a rough classification of an invention as relating, for example, to software or computers (or user interfaces), and using this as a basis to assess whether an invention constitutes patentable subject matter. It suggests that a flexible, holistic, case by case methodology should be adopted to understand the true nature of the invention, in view of the state of the art when the patent application was filed.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Topics
 
Related Articles
 
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions