When Is a Graphical User Interface a Technological Improvement? Core Wireless, Trading Technologies, and Patent Eligibility of User Interfaces

I.          Introduction

 

            In the context of application software, the user interface may be a key differentiating feature among competing software products.  Thus, when a software company seeks patent protection for a software product, the user interface oftentimes is analyzed and considered for patent protection. 

            A potential obstacle to obtaining patent protection for a user interface is the requirement that the claims covering the user interface be directed towards patent-eligible subject matter.  In particular, the claims cannot be directed towards an abstract idea or must recite significantly more than the abstract idea.  See, e.g., Manual of Patent Examining Procedure (MPEP) § 2106.  In determining whether claims are properly directed towards patent-eligible subject matter, as opposed to an abstract idea, both patent examiners and the courts ask whether the claimed subject matter constitutes an improvement to computer functionality or other technology or whether the claimed subject matter provides a technological solution to a technological problem.  In this article, we analyze two different lines of Federal Circuit cases, where the cases are specific to user interfaces, and where the opinions were written by Judge Moore.  We then delineate various factors that weigh in favor of finding that a user interface improves the functionality of a computer and/or provides a technological solution to a technological problem. 

 

II.         Patent-Eligible User Interface: Core Wireless Licensing SARL vs. LG Electronics, Inc., 880 F.3d 1356 (Fed. Cir. 2018)

 

            In the Core Wireless case, plaintiff-appellee Core Wireless Licensing SARL asserted various claims of U.S. Patent Nos. 8,713,476 (“’476 patent”) and 8,434,020 (“’020 patent”) against defendant-appellant LG Electronics.  The asserted claims were directed towards improved user interfaces, with specific application to small screen devices, such as mobile telephones.  See Core Wireless, 880 F.3d at 1358.  According to the specification of the asserted patents, computing devices with small screens need data and functionality to be divided into many layers or views.  See ’020 patent at col. 1, lines 26-33.  Navigating through user interfaces with such constraints can be slow, complex, and difficult to learn.  See id. at col. 1, lines 45-46.  The invention described in the asserted patents involved an application summary window that provides a snapshot view of an application.  See id. at col. 3, lines 23-30.  The snapshot view includes a limited list of common functions within the application and/or data stored in the application.  See id. at col. 2, lines 20-25.  A user can then select a function or data within the application summary window to jump directly to the selected data or function within the application.  See id. at col. 2, lines 31-35.  Thus, via the application summary window in the user interface, data or functions can be accessed using fewer steps than with conventional user interfaces.  See id. at col. 2, lines 35-39. 

            The Federal Circuit held that the claims asserted by Core Wireless were not directed towards an abstract idea.  See Core Wireless, 880 F.3d at 1363.  Instead, the court found that the claimed approach improved the functionality of computers, particularly computers with small screens.  See id.  The court noted that the asserted claims specified a particular manner in which the application summary window is to be accessed, restrained the type of data that can be displayed in the application summary window, and required that the applications exist in a particular state.  See id. at 1362-63.  The court further cited the discussion in the specification of the asserted patents outlining the drawbacks associated with computing devices having small screens as well as the advantages of the invention with respect to the ease and speed of navigation, particularly on devices small screens.  See id. at 1363.  Accordingly, the court concluded the asserted claims were directed towards an improvement in computer functionality. 

 

III.        Patent-Ineligible User Interface: Trading Technologies International, Inc. v. IBG LLC, No. 2017-2257 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 18, 2019) (“Trading Technologies I”); Trading Technologies International, Inc. v. IBG LLC, No. 2017-2323 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 30, 2019) (“Trading Technologies II”).

 

            The claims at issue in Trading Technologies I and Trading Technologies II relate to user interfaces for displaying information to traders.  For example, in Trading Technologies I, U.S. Patent No. 7,212,999 (“’999 patent”) was directed towards a user interface for electronic trading that enabled a trader to view trends in orders and provided trading information in an easy to see and interpret graphical format.  See ’999 patent at col. 2, lines 3-6.  The specification of the ‘999 patent explained that traders have difficulty quickly assembling information from diverse sources or effectively processing the information in order to make informed decisions.  See id. at col. 1, lines 51-54.  In Trading Technologies II, U.S. Patent No. 7,783,556 (“’556 patent”) involved generating certain values that are derivative of price and displaying those values along an axis on a screen.  See ’556 patent at col. 3, lines 22-26.  The specification of the ‘556 patent explained that traders are interested in analyzing certain information not normally provided in an electronic exchange data feed or displayed on conventional trading screens and that assimilating that information from diverse sources was typically too difficult for traders.  See id. at col. 2, lines 18-30. 

            In both Trading Technologies I and Trading Technologies II, the Federal Circuit found that the claims at-issue were directed towards patent-ineligible subject matter.  In so ruling, the court analyzed whether the claimed subject matter, as a whole, improved computer functionality or solved a technological problem.  See Trading Technologies I, slip op. at pp. 15, 17-19; Trading Technologies II, slip op. at pp. 8-10.  The court also engaged in a similar analysis to determine, for eligibility for review under the Transitional Program for Covered Business Method Patents, whether the claims at issue were technical solutions to technical problems.  See Trading Technologies I, slip op. at pp. 4-13, Trading Technologies II, slip op. at pp. 5-7.  The court noted that the patent specifications did not identify any technical problems associated with obtaining or displaying information to traders.  See Trading Technologies I, slip op. at pp. 8-9, 12-13; Trading Technologies II, slip op. at pp. 6-7.  Rather, the specifications were concerned with the difficulty that traders have in acquiring and/or assembling the information.  See id.  Similarly, the claims at-issue were directed to providing traders with information that improved their ability to process information more quickly, as opposed to being directed towards improving computers or technology.  See Trading Technologies I, slip op. at p. 15, 17-19; Trading Technologies II, slip op. at pp. 8-10.  Accordingly, the court concluded that the claims at issue did not improve computer functionality.   

 

IV.       Comparison

 

            A comparison between Core Wireless and the Trading Technologies cases reveals some notable distinctions that helped tip the scales in favor of patent eligibility in Core Wireless and against patent eligibility in Trading Technologies.

  • The patent specifications framed the problems with the prior art differently.  In Core Wireless, the problem statement focused on the limitations in the operation or function of prior art user interfaces caused by the small screens of certain computer devices.  On the other hand, in the Trading Technologies cases, the problem statement focused on the types of information being provided to the user through the user interface.  In particular, the problem statement in Trading Technologies focused on the difficulty traders had acquiring and processing information via prior art user interfaces and the inadequacy of the information provided to traders via prior art user interfaces. 

  • The patent specifications differed in the connections made between the inventive features and specific computer operations or characteristics.  In Core Wireless, the specification connected the application summary window to specific computer operations and characteristics that led to the problem with the prior art.  The application summary window addressed the problems associated with the small screen size by bypassing the additional levels of navigation necessitated by the small screen size.  On the other hand, the information displayed in the user interfaces in Trading Technologies was not connected to any specific computer operations or characteristics at issue.  The information did not address any problem associated with a specific computer operation or characteristic, but rather a problem associated with the ability of the trader to carry out trading activities.  

  • Although the claimed subject matter in both Core Wireless and Trading Technologies involved, at a high level, displaying some new type of information, the specific types of limitations in the claims differed.  In Core Wireless, the claims included limitations that limited the manner in which the information is displayed.  Importantly, these limitations tie back to the articulated problem statement and the small screen sizes of certain computer devices.  In Trading Technologies, the claim limitations governed what information is displayed and the formatting of that information.  These limitations do not tie back to any particular technical problem and are not related to any specific computer operation or characteristic. 
     

V.        Conclusions

 

            A user interface can be considered an improvement to computer functionality or technology for purposes of patent eligibility.  The Core Wireless and Trading Technologies cases show that how the problem with the prior art and its connection to the inventive features are discussed and claimed can influence the analysis into whether a user interface constitutes an improvement in computer functionality or a solution to a technological problem.  Accordingly, patent practitioners should consider the following when drafting utility applications directed towards user interfaces.

  • Patent practitioners should consider how the problem with the prior art is framed within the specification.  In particular, patent practitioners should look to frame the problem around specific computer operations and/or characteristics.  For example, did a specific operation and/or limiting characteristic of the computer lead to or cause (at least indirectly) to the problem with prior art user interfaces?  Is there a structural drawback or deficiency with prior art user interfaces?  Can the structural drawback or deficiency be connected to a specific limiting characteristic of the computer?

  • Patent practitioners also should articulate in the specification how the inventive features of the inventive user interface are connected to the problem with the prior art.  Are the inventive features targeted to the problem caused by the specific computer operations and/or characteristics or targeted to a structural drawback or deficiency of prior art user interfaces? 

  • Practitioners should focus on how the features of the graphics user interface facilitate the user’s interactions with the computer and/or enable the user to operate the computer more effectively.

  • Similarly, during claim drafting, patent practitioners should consider whether the claimed subject matter targets or is tied to the problem caused by the specific computer operations and/or characteristics and/or targets or is tied to a structural drawback or deficiency of prior art user interfaces.

  • Claims also should capture the specific operations of the graphical user interface that facilitate the user’s interactions with the computer and/or enable the user to operate the computer more effectively.

A patent application for a user interface drafted with the above considerations in mind should stand a far better chance of withstanding Section 101 scrutiny. 

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When Is a Graphical User Interface a Technological Improvement? Core Wireless, Trading Technologies, and Patent Eligibility of User Interfaces

August 22, 2019

I.          Introduction

            In the context of application software, the user interface may be a key di...

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