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Apple's Slide-to-Unlock Patent Invalid, Loses $120M Award

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 03, 2016 6:00 AM

Fortunes have reversed again in the long, long, long-running patent litigation between Apple and Samsung. The Federal Circuit, in its third appellate ruling in the dispute, held that two Apple touch-screen patents were invalid because of obviousness, including the iPhone's famous slide-to-unlock and autocorrect features.

The Federal Circuit ruling overturns a jury verdict awarding Apple $120 million.

Third Time's a Charm

In this case, the third appeal in Apple v. Samsung to reach the Federal Circuit, the court addressed the patentability and infringement of three Apple touch-screen features: slide-to-unlock, autocorrect, and data-structure detection. The first allows you to open your phone with a quick brush across the screen. The second is responsible for creating a whole "damn you, autocorrect!" genre of comedy. The third detects things like dates and phone numbers and allows you to click on them to take a specific action.

Both swipe-to-unlock and autocorrect were too obvious to be patented, the Federal Circuit ruled.

Secondary Factors Not Strong Enough

Samsung had made a strong prima facie case for obviousness, the court ruled, having shown that elements of both features had already been widely known. Apple had urged the court to find that secondary considerations supported a finding of nonobviousness. But in the face of such a strong showing from Samsung and considering that "Apple's evidence of secondary considerations was weak" the court declined.

Apple had claimed that its patents were nonobvious because they satisfied a long-felt but unresolved need, received industry praise, were copied, and had commercial success. But the court struck those factors down one by one.

There was little evidence to show that Apple had met an "unresolved need," the court found, outside of Apple's own assertions that the features were better than previous methods. Industry praise from Apple fans was not legally significant, the court found, while only small elements of Apple's slide-to-unlock feature were copied. Finally, the commercial success of the iPhone was not enough to show that the patented features were innovative.

No Infringement of Data-Structure Patent

As for the third patent, the data-structure detection, the court found that no jury could have found Samsung's use to be infringing. That technology relied on what was called an "analyzer server," which detects structures, such as dates and phone numbers, in information. Until the last day of the trial, the district court had relied upon the "common meaning" of "analyzer server."

But the Federal Circuit had simultaneously construed "analyzer server" in an unrelated case. That Federal Circuit construction was adopted on the last day of the district court trial, but the evidence put forth by Apple was too little to allow a jury to conclude that Samsung's software was an "analyzer server" infringing upon Apple's patent, the Federal Circuit ruled.

And with that, Apple's district court win was gone, along with its $120 million damage award.

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