IP Cases & Articles

Iconic design: IP rights for graphic user interfaces

Over recent times portable devices have developed the capacity to store an increasing amount of information. Users have therefore required new and innovative ways of easily displaying and accessing this information. Many companies have invested huge amounts of time and money in developing graphical user interfaces (GUIs).

The same GUI is typically provided across all of the devices produced by a particular manufacturer, so that the consumer becomes familiar with the particular look and feel of a family of products. For example, Apple's iPad, iPhone and iPod adopt the same GUI. Investment in the GUI should be protected by intellectual property rights to ensure that the look and feel of the products remains distinctive and exclusively associated with the company's products, preventing third party copying.

One design, multiple products

In Europe, the appearance of the GUI can be protected by registered Community designs (RCDs). The RCD does provide useful protection as it extends to the GUI applied to any device. In terms of protection, it does not matter whether the GUI is applied to a competitor's smartphone, tablet or set-top box; if the design is applied to any product, action can be taken.

Protecting GUIs - aesthetics

RCDs are particularly useful where the layout of the icons on a screen are aesthetic. Additionally, they are useful when a company wishes to protect the look and feel of the GUI. For example, colour choices, shading and font choices can all be protected.

Protecting GUIs - operation

Although aesthetics are important in GUIs, many GUIs also improve the operation of the device. For example, a GUI that improves the precision of icon selection by the user may be capable of patent protection. These utilitarian features are particularly valuable to companies and where these features are independent of aesthetics, it will be worth acknowledging the investment made in advancing the technology by also investing in patent protection.

Patent protection for GUIs

Obtaining patent protection for a GUI in Europe is sometimes challenging. This is because case law has evolved at the European Patent Office (EPO) to a position where it has been decided that any aspects of an invention which relate solely to the presentation of information cannot be used to confer inventive character in the invention. As such, these inventions will not be capable of patent protection.

Of course, many aspects of a GUI do relate solely to the content of the information being presented. As noted, these would not be capable of patent protection in Europe. However, in some instances the structure of the GUI assists the user in selecting content via icons. Patent protection for this type of GUI may have just become easier in view of a recent case decided by the Board of Appeal at the EPO.

Samsung granted menu icons patent

Case T0781/10 related to a device that had menu icons displayed on a background image. The icon was selectable by moving the focus using a direction button. Specifically, the difference between the invention and a known GUI resided in "the background screen management unit [being] configured to change a view point of the background screen when the focus is moved, in accordance with a direction in which the focus is moved".

It was held by the Board of Appeal that the problem with GUIs that this difference addressed was to "increase the user's awareness of the currently selected menu hierarchy, and thereby achieve a more effective man-machine interface". Moreover, this difference enhanced the precision of the input device.

Interestingly, the user's interpretation of the information on the screen resulted in the improved awareness and precision. However, as the invention based the change of view on the direction in which the focus is moved, the contribution was deemed to be technical and assisted in the improved awareness. Accordingly, the invention was more than a mere presentation of information.

It should be noted that in this case, the claimed invention related to how the icon was displayed or changed rather than the form of the icon. As this invention provided a technical contribution over existing GUIs, and because the invention was more than a mere presentation of information, the claimed invention was deemed to have the required inventive character. Patent protection was therefore granted.

IP rights for GUI protection

This case shows the importance in selecting the correct IP protection:

  • Where the uniqueness of the GUI resides in the aesthetics of the GUI, then RCDs are the most appropriate form of protection.
  • Where the uniqueness resides in the utilitarian function of the GUI, patent protection is most appropriate.

If you have any queries or would like to discuss the issues raised in this article, please contact your usual D Young & Co advisor or any member of our patent or design teams.

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