updated 05:20 pm EST, Fri December 7, 2012
Preliminary ruling first step to possibly invalidate the patent
In a ruling issued Monday and made public today, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has issued a preliminary ruling declaring a key Apple iPhone patent invalid. All 20 claims of US Patent Number 7,479,949, also known as "The Steve Jobs Patent" covering a "touch screen device, method, and graphical user interface for determining commands by applying heuristics" have been rejected.
Apple has used the '949 patent against both Samsung and Motorola. In a case earlier this year, Judge Richard Posner decreed large parts of the patent invalid against Motorola. In 2010, a reexamination request filed with the USPTO was denied on this patent, but another request this year resulted in the re-examination and this initial, non-binding, conclusion of the notice. This declaration has no immediate bearing on current cases, or cases already tried, such as from the Apple versus Samsung patent trial, but may be a big factor in appeals, depending on the expected multi-year length of the USPTO review process.
Patent analyst Florian Mueller notes that "many patent claims that are rejected at this stage do ultimately survive. 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). Some people say that first Office actions are partial because they are based only on submissions made by those challenging the patent, and many examiners like to take a tough position early on in order to enable and require the patentee to present the strongest arguments in favor of validity."
He also believes that it is a serious matter for Apple, and the fact that the entirety of the patent has been rejected makes the ruling harder for Apple to defend the patent in front of the USPTO. The current ruling is not binding, and will go through several more reviews before a final judgement is declared, but the new notice may embolden Apple's opponents in various court fights in the meantime.