Supreme Court’s new rules on abstract patents hit Apple v. Samsung
When the US Supreme Court decided the Alice v. CLS Bank case last month, it was a signal that courts should be throwing out a lot more patents for being too abstract to be legally valid. Groups seeking patent reform and tech companies rejoiced, hoping the decision would knock out more of the patents wielded by so-called "patent trolls," whose only business is litigation.
The fallout from this year's biggest patent decision is still taking shape, and it won't be affecting just fly-by-night patents owned by trolls. Defendants in corporate patent battles are hoping to use the Supreme Court decision to their advantage as well. Now, Alice v. CLS has come up in Apple v. Samsung, the highest-profile patent battle in recent years. Just two weeks after the decision came down, Samsung lawyers have filed a brief stating their belief that the Supreme Court ruling knocks out two Apple patents used to score a second $120 million verdict against them earlier this year.
Apple's universal search patent and "swipe-to-unlock" patent are exactly the type of basic ideas, surrounded with "do it on a computer" language, that the US Supreme Court rejected, say Samsung lawyers.
Opposition papers were filed by Apple earlier this month; the issue is now fully briefed and awaiting US District Judge Lucy Koh's decision.
In legal papers (PDF), Samsung argues that both patents are attempts to "claim an abstract idea, implemented with generic computer functions that do not state any technical innovation."
The search patent describes using "heuristics," which an Apple witness described at trial as simply being "good ideas," to "locate information in multiple locations." Slide-to-unlock, meanwhile, "covers nothing more than the idea of moving an image to unlock the device." Everything else in the key patent claim is generic computer language. "This simply is not enough to qualify for patent protection post-Alice," write Samsung lawyers. "Both claims are invalid as a matter of law."
Apple lawyers argue (PDF) that at this stage, Samsung shouldn't be allowed to even bring up an argument under the relevant area of law, Section 101 of the US patent code. With regard to the patents themselves, Apple says its expert didn't just say a "heuristic" is a "good idea," but rather a "rule of thumb." The lawyers write:
[A] computer process that enables a single machine to distribute a single information identifier and provide that to multiple “rules of thumb” so that each “rule of thumb” can search different locations using different criteria designed for that location is a major innovation in computer science; it improves the speed and efficiency of the computer and generates more useful results. It is not an abstract idea.
As for "slide to unlock," the Apple system is a novel one that requires instructions:
(1) “to detect contact with the touch-sensitive display at a first predefined location corresponding to an unlock image”; (2) “to continuously move the unlock image on the touch-sensitive display in accordance with movement of the detected contact”; (3) “to unlock the hand held electronic device if the unlock image is moved from the first predefined location on the touch screen to a predefined unlock region on the touch-sensitive display”; and (4) “visual cues to communicate a direction of movement of the unlock image required to unlock the device.”
The effort by Samsung to turn Alice v. CLS into a game-changer has to be seen as a last-ditch effort for this lawsuit. It wouldn't ruin Samsung's legal case—Apple's earlier $930 million win, now on appeal, didn't rely on this patent. In the court of public opinion, getting a ruling that either of these patents was "abstract" would make Apple's behavior look pretty terrible. It would also further stoke the debate about whether software patents as a whole are beneficial, if a high-profile case from a renowned company was thrown out.
The slide-to-unlock patent has been particularly controversial—it was ruled invalid by a German court last year. After Apple was granted the patent, phone fanatics immediately noted that slide-to-unlock wasn't new, even on phones. In a 2011 post gawking at Apple's patent, Android Central reminded its readers of the Neonode N1m, launched in 2005. The N1m was based on Windows CE and used infrared rather than the capacitive touchscreen used by Apple. Cheekier commenters noted that "slide to unlock" as a concept had actually been invented centuries ago by, well, locksmiths.