Guest Post by Prof. Risch: Functionality and Graphical User Interface Design Patents

Guest Post by Michael Risch, Professor of Law, Villanova University School of Law

Read the whole draft here, forthcoming in the Stanford Tech. L. Rev.

Before I was a patent guy, I was a copyright guy, and I did much of my work and research in user interfaces. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, there was a lot of uncertainty about how user interfaces would be protected by copyright. The latest version of the Copyright Act had just become effective, and graphical user interfaces (GUIs) were just taking off. Following a lot of litigation, and despite seemingly contradictory appellate rulings and an equally divided Supreme Court in one case, things eventually settled down.

It is against this backdrop that I took great interest in the Apple v. Samsung case, which is in trial right now on damages issues. Buried in all the talk about rectangles with rounded corners and pinch to zoom is a graphical user interface design patent.

Fig 1

Several of Samsung’s phones infringed this patent. In my article, I consider the implications of design patents, functionality, and graphical user interfaces. This is a realm previously limited to copyright. The difference in protection is important because design patents do not traditionally allow the same defenses — like fair use — associated with copyright.

The article answers three emerging questions:

1. Aren’t GUIs something that should be protected by copyright only? Why should there be a patent? The answer is relatively simple: the law has, since 1870, contemplated dual protection. The article traces the history to explain why the law could have evolved differently, but simply did not.

2. Display screens change, both before and after sale. How can someone patent an ephemeral screen design? It also turns out that ephemeral designs have been protected for some time. Even so, the article proposes some limitations on the protection of GUIs that should address the special nature of GUI design patents.

3. There are many differences between Apple’s patent and Samsung’s product. How can Apple own the idea of square icons in a grid with a dock bar at the bottom? This last question is the most intractable: determining when a design is infringing, and the role that functionality should play in that consideration. The bulk of the article is dedicated to answering this question. 

To answer the third question, the article draws on lessons from prior copyright disputes about GUIs. It first suggests that courts must act as gatekeepers, rather than allowing juries to determine which elements to disregard as functional. It then develops economic factors that can help the court determine whether a design element is functional, and whether to allow reuse by a competing program.

While the economic factors, such as consumer switching costs, apply to both copyright and design patents, the legal doctrine to achieve economic ends will necessarily differ. As noted above, there is no fair use doctrine in design patent law. Even so, there is a form of filtration, and the article proposes that such filtration be expanded to exclude functional elements from infringement analysis. The full article is available here.

28 thoughts on “Guest Post by Prof. Risch: Functionality and Graphical User Interface Design Patents

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  5. Huh? Read Lotus v Borland – if you have a function … claim it as a patent right. Don’t give me this – 150 year copyright – right to a functionality. BTW, try to limit software copyright – with full repository of code – to the term of the patent right – if you want to flush the skunks out of the wood pile – and restore balance to innovation.

    1. “Don’t give me this – 150 year copyright – right to a functionality.”um, you do know that you cannot copyright functionality, right?

  6. We should keep in mind when reading this that it is not peer reviewed and that Stanford is dominated by Lemley. So, this paper has no more weight and should have no more weight than a blog post. Nor are the authors of these papers held accountable for unethical conduct. So, let’s keep the right perspective. Vanity press. No accountability.

    1. Huge sigh of relief here. I was worried for a minute that you might have actually read it and exposed a real flaw in the analysis.

  7. Haven’t read the entire thing yet, but I did want to thank you for including the detail that bothers me most about design patents for GUIs: merely viewing the drawings of the design patent on a display – the public record that actually puts the public on notice as to what is an infringement – is itself an infringement.

  8. I remember the GUI copyright battles in the late 70′s to mid 80′s. I was writing BIOS code when windows 1.0 OEM demo came out (That ugly monochrome thing for IBM PC clone manufactures.). I think copyright is good for UI design features. My personal opinion of patent on GUI is that it is an abuse of the system. I shall fetch the full article now.

    1. “My personal opinion of patent on GUI is that it is an abuse of the system”Obviously, there is nothing ornamental about GUI’s.

      1. LOL – really 6?Other than interacting with the GUI to see what happens, how do you tell one from another? (that would be the ornamental part that distinguishes any GUI from any other GUI so that you can interact without trial and error).You really need to try harder with your comments.

        1. Certainly not by ornamentation, aka things added for decoration. And that of course is presuming we even consider the GUI a part of the product itself rather than nothing more than an image projected thereupon.

            1. It may be true that a dictionary is pretty on the matter – all the more the pity that you cannot get things right here, then, isn’t?

            2. I already said “things added for decoration”. Dam man, try reading what I already put down. I got it 100% correct already.

            3. You got it 0% correct, 6.You are not even in the right ballpark.You seem to think that ‘decoration’ is the only thing that ornamentation can serve. I suggest you take a gander at the world of Trademarks and bring yourself up to speed as to what ornamentation can include.

            4. I’m not particularly concerned about what “the world of trademarks” has deluded themselves into believing that ornamentation can include.

            5. You are not particularly concerned with a lot of important and relevant things, 6.Unfortunately for you, being correct means taking into account this reality, here and now. Unfortunately for everyone else, you continue to post with no regards to reality.As I have posted, your ‘character’ is abysmal.

            6. Whenever you get around to establishing the “relevance” of trademark to patent law I’ll be here to listen.

            7. More from you than just being here is needed 6.The relevance was in the meaning of the word. You tend to misuse (and abuse) meaning in your faulty responses, for which you have been repeatedly reminded (e.g. ladders of abstraction), so your statement of ‘being here’ is quite meaningless.

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