New iPhone Gesture Patent Adds to Apple’s IP Arsenal

Apple was granted another major patent Tuesday covering one of the concepts used in its iPhone interface. Titled “Portable multifunction device, method, and graphical user interface for translating displayed content,” the patent effectively covers the concept of using a one-finger motion to move the contents of a page, while using a two finger motion to move just the contents of a frame within that broader page.

The key portion of the abstract from the patent is, “An N-finger translation gesture is detected on or near the touch screen display. In response, the page content, including the displayed portion of the frame content and the other content of the page, is translated to display a new portion of page content on the touch screen display. An M-finger translation gesture is detected on or near the touch screen display, where M is a different number than N. In response, the frame content is translated to display a new portion of frame content on the touch screen display, without translating the other content of the page.”

This concept is illustrated in Figure 5A (see below) from the patent, which shows a page from either an app or a browser, depending on how it ends up being interpreted by the lawyers, that includes a frame of separate content labeled “ABCD.” The single circle with a line represents the one-finger motion that causes the main page of content (labeled “45[…]910”) — the double circle with two lines represents a two-fingers motion that moves just the content in the frame.

Apple Patent Illustration

Patent illustration from Apple patent 7,966,578
(Click the image for a larger version)

Not as sweeping as the so-called “iPhone patent” that Apple was awarded in 2009, the patent does have the potential to give Apple control over a key touch interface concept. Apple could use that control to try to prevent competing devices that use this concept from entering the U.S. market.

Of course, much attorney mind power would have to be exerted by Apple to enforce the patent, while even more power would no doubt be used to try to completely invalidate the patent, or at least to limit its scope. For instance, does the patent cover apps, Web browsers, or both? Is it limited to just up and and down swipes, or can it be interpreted to include any set of different motions used to scroll through different sets of content.

However it works out, it is definitely an important weapon in Apple’s growing arsenal of IP weapons the company can bring to bear in the multitude of patent infringement suits the company is involved in. Even if Apple doesn’t try to use the patent to keep competing devices out of the U.S. market, the threat of doing so could be leverage for ending patent litigation where Apple doesn’t stand as strongly as it does in the area of touch user interface.