IP Information & News

How to protect a user interface with a patent

Dr Terence Broderick

By Dr Terence Broderick

Patent Attorney

We recently outlined two key questions to consider when deciding whether to protect a software-based invention. While these remain relevant for user interfaces, there are some important nuances to be aware of, as software expert Terence Broderick explains.

User interfaces — a brief overview

User interfaces are all around us. Underpinned by software, a user interface is what we see when we interact with an electronic device — whether that’s to access it, compose a message or open a file. Their design is key, as they often characterise how easy it is to access the information and navigate the functionalities in our devices. If a user interface is too complex, it becomes overbearing and ineffective; too simple, and not enough information is conveyed to fulfil the minimum levels of functionality.

The question of technical effect in a user interface

Any features of a user interface that specify a mechanism to enable user input are usually considered to provide a technical effect. However, features that rely more on the subjective preferences of a user tend to be treated as non-technical.

In a world where everything from your car to your fridge has a user interface, features can often be considered mundane and technically uninteresting. It’s the dismissal of these features by patent offices that can provide interesting guidance as to where the lines are between non-technical and technical user interface features.

In the case T277/16 (Google), the question of patentability for an access method was considered and accepted as being technical. The concept, in short, was to control access by requiring less complex and less burdensome security rules in areas which are defined as ‘familiar’. Put simply, if a user was accessing a device at home, they could gain access using a shorter passcode than they would if they were accessing the device in a non-familiar area, such as a shopping centre.

The European Patent Office (EPO) initially rejected this feature as non-technical and therefore lacking in inventive step. However, on appeal, it determined that the features in the claim which enable the user interface (i.e. the location-dependent access requirements) are “intimately tied to the use and usability of the device for the legitimate user and therefore contribute to the technical character of the invention as a whole”.

Protecting your user interface

So, in order to obtain protection for a user interface in Europe, it’s important to focus the patent application on the features which make the hosting device more usable. This means that you must provide clear technical information to link the benefits provided by the interface to the technical features of the device.

As our devices are fed with ever more data, the design of user interfaces will only become more technical. This is especially true for complex systems, where large amounts of data from a plurality of sources are displayed to a user.

If you’re considering applying for a patent to protect user interface technology, it’s vital to access the appropriate expertise and the knowledge of how patent offices around the world examine this technology.

Get in touch with our software team today to see if patent protection may be available — you can contact me directly at tsb@udl.co.uk.

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