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Apple v Samsung: Prior Art makes for Invalid Patents

Written by Aasim Durrani on 28 August 2011

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Apple has had a number of its patents ruled invalid by a Dutch judge hearing an application to have Samsung’s Galaxy S, Galaxy S II and Galaxy Ace mobile phone banned in the EU. Many of these patents were ruled invalid on the basis of prior art and function. An invention must demonstrate an inventive step before it can attract patent protection and the pre-existence of another product which achieves that which the patent seeks to protect will invalidate it.

Apple’s patent which described sliding one’s finger on-screen in order to unlock a device was ruled invalid because the 2005 Neonode N1m, which predates the iPhone, had a similar slide-to-unlock feature. Apple also sought protection in relation to the appearance of its iPad by relying on Community Design Rights, although the judge ruled that this was not possible as only the front of the device bore any similarity. The judge referred to the Compaq TC1x00, amongst other devices, as examples of prior art and mentioned that Apple’s minimalist design philosophy would make it more difficult for the company to attract design rights protection.

Apple attempted to assert design rights by contending that the outward appearance of Samsung’s Galaxy S and Galaxy S II phones were too similar to its iPhone. The judge ruled, however, that the LG Prada, released in 2006, had similar design characteristics, thereby defeating Apple’s claim. Samsung was also deemed not to have copied Apple’s interface which consists of a grid of icons, as the Nokia 7710 had a similar interface and again predated the iPhone.

The judge did, however, uphold one patent, which relates to scrolling through a photo gallery and the way in which a photo displayed on the screen “bounces back” when too short a swipe is registered. An injunction was granted to prevent sales and advertisements of all Samsung Galaxy phones, although the injunction will not take effect until mid-October. Samsung may choose to lodge an appeal against the decision before then, or alternatively release an update for its phones which will update the Gallery application to operate in a way which does not infringe Apple’s patent.

The judgment makes for interesting reading, particularly for technophiles and those with an interest in intellectual property. For legal practitioners and inventors, it underlines the importance of ensuring the inventive step is properly demonstrable and illustrates how an instance of prior art will invalidate a patent.

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