Can We Patent User Interfaces?


The big news this year in 2012 was Apple suing Samsung for ripping off its iPhone & iPad devices. This is intriguing for designers.
Apple won the case in the US claiming Samsung had copied much of its User Interface designs – this brought into the light that GUI can indeed be patented contrary to many beliefs that it can’t. In fact, Apple’s even patented the Trash can on the OS.

What is actually patent-able?

yes: circuits, hardware, software, applied algorithms, formulas, designs, user interface elements, applications, systems.

No: scientific principles or mathematical algorithms. Anything which is obvious or of general use in the industry or a visual appearance (look & feel). We can’t patent a whole UI but we can patent UI elements if it is a novel (unique) in its approach.

Is it limited to a country? do I need to apply/register in each country or region?

yes it’s restricted to a country or a geographical region. There is an International Patent option which last for 30 months.

How long does the patent last for? What are the steps to register it?

Design patents last 14 years from the date you are granted the patent.

  1. Do a patent search to see if it’s patentable (or that it hasn’t been done already with a similar invention)
  2. If there’s no demand for it, generally it wouldn’t need to be patented – best to do a market research on it
  3. You need to be able to describe and show how it works via written or prototype to show it’s “novel” quality. An invention must be “constructable” and “work correctly”.
  4. Apply by providing all written descriptions with details – if prior art exists, it needs to be identified. It typically costs $10-30k and can take from a year to 4 years. The validity of the patent varies from countries such as “first to apply” to “first to patent”. Provisional patent is a cheaper option and quicker – it gives you the “first to file” status.

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