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German Federal Patent Court: Apple loses its patent protection in Germany for unlocking gesture

Apple’s patent for the slide-to-unlock feature used on its iPhones and iPads has been invalidated by the German Federal Patent Court (Bundespatentgericht), following the application for invalidity submitted by Motorola Mobility Germany and Samsung Electronics GmbH.

The news is a victory for Samsung and Motorola, both of whom have been sued by Apple for using a similar gesture to unlock their smartphones. The German Federal Patent Court ruled on 04.04.2013 to the effect that European Patent Number EP1964022 called Unlocking a device by performing gestures on an unlocked image was null and void.

In an attempt to save the patent, Apple proposed 14 amendments, but ultimately couldn’t convince the five judges that the feature was patentable and the amendments were also dismissed.

Unlocking an iPhone or iPad via a virtual slider on the screen has been one of the most popular features of Apple’s mobile phones since they were launched in 2007, which Apple has used in several lawsuits.

A key reason for Apple's slide to unlock patent being invalidated was probably a Swedish phone called the Neonode N1m that was launched well before the iPhone and featured its own slide to unlock implementation. The N1m was published in 2005 (thus becoming part of the prior art, which consists in technical information that has been made available to the public before the date of the patent whose validity is being contested) while Apple's own patent for slide to unlock wasn't filed until December of 2005.

Unlike patent law in the US, it is considerably harder to patent software in Europe and Germany since software, in order to be patentable, needs to solve a technical problem with a technical solution.

The Federal Patent Court denied, in the case at hand, that Apple’s slide-to-unlock feature adhered to this requirement, since it was, in the Court’s opinion, a graphic measure to make the use of the smartphone more convenient for users, but did not solve a technical issue. The patent disclosed elements that were undoubtedly technical, but the Judges held that the feature of the contested patent (i.e. the slide-to-unlock function) that possessed inventive step (that is to say the feature of an invention whereby such patent is judged, on the basis of the prior art, to be non-obvious) was non-technical since it was only software per se.

Rivals Samsung and Motorola will be able to equally use such gesture, with which users unlock their devices.

Apple may appeal against the decision to the German Federal Court (Bundesgerichtshof).

Apple-Patent für nichtig erklärt

5. April 2013

Am 4. April 2013 hat der 2. Nichtigkeitssenat des Bundespatentgerichts über zwei – miteinander verbundene - Klagen der Motorola Mobility Germany und der Samsung Electronics GmbH gegen das Europäische Patent 1 964 022 mit dem Titel „Unlocking a device by performing gestures on an unlocked image“ (in der deutschen Übersetzung: „Entsperrung einer Vorrichtung durch Durchführung von Gesten auf einem Entsperrungsbild“) der Fa. Apple Inc. entschieden. Das angegriffene Patent wurde sowohl in der erteilten Fassung als auch in der Fassung der 14 Hilfsanträge für nichtig erklärt.

Zur Begründung hat sich das Gericht darauf berufen, dass die Merkmale des Patentanspruchs 1 in der erteilten Fassung , die über den Stand der Technik hinausgehen, als nicht-technisch anzusehen und daher nach der Rechtsprechung des Bundesgerichtshofs und der Beschwerdekammern des Europäischen Patentamts bei der Beurteilung der Patentfähigkeit nicht zu berücksichtigen sind. Vielmehr dienten diese Merkmale dazu, die Bedienung durch grafische Maßnahmen für den Benutzer bequemer und noch anschaulicher zu gestalten. Ein technisches Problem werde durch die fraglichen Maßnahmen nicht gelöst.

Auch die vorgelegten Hilfsanträge, die Ergänzungen zu den in Frage stehenden Merkmalen enthalten, hat das Gericht für nicht patentfähig erachtet. Zum einen konnte das Problem der Technizität nicht behoben werden, zum anderen waren die Einschränkungen dem Fachmann aus dem Stand der Technik nahegelegt.

Gegen die Entscheidung ist die Berufung der Fa. Apple Inc. zum Bundesgerichtshof möglich.

Aktenzeichen:

2 Ni 59/11 EP verbunden mit 2 Ni 64/11 EP

This post is also available in: Italian

Paul Bodenham

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