USPTO Rules Steve Jobs Touch Patent Invalid

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The United States Patent and Trademark Office has issued a preliminary ruling declaring a key Apple patent covering touch screen devices invalid. Patent number 7,479,949, or the Steve Jobs Patent, is still in effect, but if the USPTO ruling is upheld, it could spell trouble for Apple's ongoing patent fights with Samsung and Motorola.

The patent describes a "touch screen device, method, and graphical user interface for determining commands by applying heuristics," and has played a role in Apple's ongoing patent litigation. The preliminary ruling doesn't, however, mean that Apple will lose the ability to enforce the patent.

Patent Office says Apple touch screen patent is invalidPatent Office says Apple touch screen patent is invalid

"Many patent claims that are rejected at this stage do ultimately survive," said Florian Mueller of Foss Patents. "There are many steps inside the USPTO, followed by a potential appeal to the Federal Circuit and in a few cases even the Supreme Court."

He added that initial rulings like this are often seen as biased because they're based on just the submissions from the patent challengers and that examiners often choose to go for invalidation. By doing so, patent holders are put in a position where they have to present a strong defensive case.

Even with Apple's coming opportunities to defend the patent, "it would be a mistake to underestimate the significance of a first Office action," Mr. Mueller said.

Apple will no doubt defend the '949 patent vigorously, not only because it's been key in previous litigation, but also because the patent office declared the entire patent invalid instead of just parts. "A complete rejection of all claims of a given patent is potentially more devastating than one affecting only some claims," he said.

[Some image elements courtesy Shutterstock]

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