Today’s world is replete with mobile communication devices which are designed, in essence, to be portable — but also to provide as much functionality as possible, without it being compromised by the portability of the device. That’s to say, size is not supposed to be a bar on functionality.
This requirement on such devices means that the user interface (the part of the device with which the user provides input to the device) needs to be well designed to ensure that the user can access as much functionality with as little effort as possible.
Can you obtain patents for graphical user interfaces in Europe?
The European Patent Office’s (EPO’s) guidance on this matter is quite unequivocally negative. According to the EPO, features concerning the graphic design of user interfaces do not have a technical effect. Their design is not based on technical considerations, but rather on general intellectual considerations as to which design is particularly appealing to a user.
The EPO specifically states that the colour, shape, size, layout and arrangement of items on the screen, or the information content of a message displayed, is usually not a technical aspect of a graphical user interface. That said, the EPO does impart an obligation on examiners to check whether such features contribute to achieving a particular technical effect if, for example, they are combined with steps of or means for interacting with a user, or they concern technical information (such as internal machine states).
For engineers involved with the design of user interfaces, the EPO’s guidance on the matter may read as somewhat high-minded, given the intellectual endeavour involved with the design of the graphical user interface on a smartphone, for example, or a satellite navigation system.
Any of the above features can be used to make a graphical user interface easier to read, or to assist in implementing the functionality of the housing device. For example, if a user has sight problems, then a user interface which deploys bright green font on a black background may be easier to read than one which deploys the standard black font on a white background. Such an effect is imparted independently of the user entering any input into the user interface.
What is the EPO looking for when assessing graphical user interface patents?
However, the Technical Board of Appeal (TBA) at the EPO has recently explored issues relating to user interfaces and, in T 651/12, has provided some guidance into what is considered to be technical.
T 651/12 concerned European patent application number 98919519.3 which was directed, amongst other things, to a map database device which could display maps.
The key substantive issue in this case was the patentability of a feature which provided a three-dimensional bird’s eye view map in a mobile device such as a satellite navigation system for a car. This enabled a more realistic view of the road to be provided to the user, which enabled the user to better orient themselves, adding to the ergonomics of the display and resulting in the immediate apprehension of the driver.
The examining division objected to this feature firstly as being an abstract mathematical method, as it interpreted this to be a calculation for the sake of making a calculation. This was dismissed by the TBA, as the calculation is clearly used for a technical purpose — to display information in an ergonomically improved manner.
The examining division also objected to this feature as a presentation of information. This was also dismissed by the TBA as the three-dimensional bird’s eye view does not merely provide a more orderly or appealing presentation of map data, but rather a presentation of map data, which is ergonomically adapted to the needs of the user. The board’s view was supported by the clear technical aspects involved with the calculations on the map data.
The TBA, in summary, entirely rejected the view that the claimed subject matter related to a mathematical method (as such) or a presentation of information (as such). The decision provides clear insight into what the EPO is looking for when it assesses the patentability of graphical user interfaces.
Provided a user interface can demonstrate a technical purpose above aesthetic aspects, the EPO should not dismiss it as a mere presentation of information.