Brion Raffoul’s Patent Spotlight Part 3: GUIs and Design Patents

By Alexandra Johnson Dingee, Art Brion, Dennis Haszko

In Part 3 of Brion Raffoul’s Patent Spotlight Series, this week’s topic is graphical user interfaces or GUIs (pronounced gooeys).

In 2020, there are approximately 3.5 Billion smart-phone users worldwide. With the proliferation of the smartphone, GUIs are more important than ever. Since its invention in the early 1970s, the GUI has progressed from being a curiosity in a research park to becoming the cornerstone of most computer operating systems.  From desktops to smartphones, the modern GUI, a system of interactive graphical elements for computer software, is often enhanced with sounds, animations, or visual effects. GUIs provide an intuitive way for users to interact with software and, in addition to being visually appealing, GUIs can be protected through design patents and industrial designs. Therefore, if a given GUI design provides an important aesthetic aspect for a product, then a design patent/industrial design for that GUI could be critical for the product’s success. The importance of design protection for GUIs cannot be overstated.

User interfaces are innovative, and allow companies to differentiate their products from one another. GUIs can form part of the design features that help consumers associate a product with a company. Although design patents/industrial designs have been around for a long time, the release of the first iPhone changed the intellectual property (IP) landscape with Apple generating an abundance of design patents to align with Apple’s comprehensive IP protection scheme. For instance, Apple’s slide-to-unlock feature (U.S. Patent No D675639S1), Apple’s app icons and their arrangement (U.S. Patent No D604305S1), and Apple’s animation for electronic page turning (U.S. Patent No D670713S1) are just a few examples of Apple’s GUI design patents that highlight Apple’s unique product features.

While it can be said that Apple changed the IP landscape, the well-known Korean company Samsung may not have been too happy with this development.  In 2011, Apple sued Samsung for copying the design of the iPhone, and this was simply the opening salvo in a barrage of international litigation between these two giants.  The suit involved a number of design and utility patents.  While there were a number of complicated developments in the case, most notably in 2012 and in 2013, the case eventually ended up at the US Supreme Court in 2016.   Here, Samsung lost its final appeal and, in May 2018, a jury ordered Samsung to pay Apple $539 million for infringing on Apple’s patents, after which Apple and Samsung settled their seven-year legal dispute.

As can be seen from the Apple/Samsung dispute and its outcome, utility patents and design patents can be quite valuable to a company.  Infringe them at your own risk!  It is perhaps due to this that, over the last decade, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has received an increasing amount of design patent applications (Figure 1).  Notably, there was a marked increase in design patent applications the same year US Supreme Court rendered its decision in Apple v Samsung.

In 2020, aesthetics can matter more than ever.  Good designs, whether GUIs or designs of physical items, can mean good business and good value. For GUIs, after users are trained to use a product by habit through a product’s GUIs, these users learn to rely on that product. These habit-forming GUIs can be protected by design patents, thereby allowing a company to shield its products with their habit-forming GUIs from counterfeiters seeking to replicate those GUIs. In terms of actual physical parts, design patents can also prevent potentially infringing companies from making replacement parts that are “compatible” with protected products.  Similarly, design patents can also protect a company’s products by ensuring that competitors do not develop designs or products that are similar to protected designs.  

It should therefore be clear that the decision in Apple v Samsung merely underlines the continued and even growing importance of design patents.  Whether these design patents protect virtual property such as GUIs or designs for physical items, design patents can form part of a company’s increasingly valuable IP portfolio.

Stay tuned for Brion Raffoul’s Patent Spotlight Series Part 4.