U.S. Patent Court Suggests Improvements in GUI Usability Are Patentable

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that patent claims generally directed to tabbed electronic spreadsheets were patent-eligible in Data Engine Techs. LLC v. Google LLC , No. 2017-1135, 2018 U.S. App. 28412 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 9, 2018). As the patent owner framed it, the patent claims were more specifically directed to making complex, three-dimensional electronic spreadsheets more accessible by providing familiar, user-friendly interface objects—notebook tabs—to navigate through spreadsheets while circumventing the arduous process of searching for, memorizing, and entering complex commands. Tabbed user interfaces for electronic spreadsheets (and other forms of electronic documents) may seem strange for patent claims now because of their near ubiquity, but the patents at issue claimed priority back to 1992 and were recognized as being revolutionary in their day.


The Court found that the tabbed interface represented a particular solution to a technological problem. It praised the claims as “a highly intuitive, user-friendly interface with familiar notebook tabs for navigating the three-dimensional worksheet environment.” The Federal Circuit also highlighted that the industry had praised the tabbed interface as an improvement to computer functionality. The patent challenger had argued that the claims were directed to unpatentable abstract ideas because they broadly claimed the idea of navigating through spreadsheet pages using buttons or a generic method of labeling and organizing spreadsheets. The Court rejected this argument, stating that the claims required a specific interface and implementation using techniques unique to computers.


The Federal Circuit agreed with the patent challenger that the subject matter of certain broader claims not specifically limited to a tabbed interface was ineligible for patent protection. Those claims more broadly recited partitioning three-dimensional spreadsheets into two-dimensional spreadsheets and associating each with a user-settable page identifier or tracking changes in three-dimensional spreadsheets. The Court concluded that such claims were directed to the abstract ideas of identifying and storing electronic spreadsheet pages and collecting and storing information.


Certain types of software inventions have become more difficult, if not impossible, to protect in the U.S. because of the expansion of what qualifies as an unpatentable abstract idea. For example, claims that straightforwardly implement a conventional business practice on the Internet are likely to be challenged for encompassing patent-ineligible abstract ideas. However, the Federal Circuit has recognized certain types of software inventions that merit patent protection. Examples include changing the way that a computer would conventionally respond to user input to solve a problem unique to computer technology and changing the way that a computer stores and processes information in a way that improves the functioning of the computer itself. This case adds to the list of cases where the patented innovation is a change to the graphical user interface that represents an improvement in computer usability. When deciding on a strategy to protect software where significant time and resources have been dedicated to the GUI, comprehensive intellectual property protection, including copyright, trademark, design patent, and utility patent protection, may still be available in the U.S. 

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